What is happening to languages at GCSE?

21 Aug 2014

Languages are unlikely to make the headlines in today’s GCSE figures published today by JCQ – the organisation has judged the situation to be ‘stable’. Although there has been a slight decline in numbers taking languages exams, this is in line with the overall decline in entries across all subjects – about 4%.

What counts as a language entry? The picture of foreign language teaching in schools can be blurred by the inclusion of ‘other languages’ and also Welsh and Irish, so let’s look first at the three most commonly-taught languages, French German and Spanish. Although these figures include entries from Wales and Northern Ireland, not just England, we can clearly see the impact of the E-Bacc halting the decline in entries in 2012 and then actually increasing numbers in 2013. However, this year they have dropped back again. Allowing for the decline in the cohort, this means that numbers are indeed holding steady, but not continuing their upward trend. And there is still a long way to go to recover ground lost since languages were made optional at Key Stage 4.


This chart takes a closer look at what is happening to individual languages. Here we see French, the subject with the most entries, leading the pattern seen for the three major languages put together, losing 38% of entries in 10 years:


But Spanish and German have very different trajectories: while German has lost 43% of entries over 10 years, Spanish has gained 49%. Other languages have gained 10%. Let’s take a closer look now at those ‘other languages’ over the last 5 years:



Here we can see a very uneven picture, with some big increases in Russian, Polish and Portuguese, balanced by declines in Italian, Urdu and other Indian subcontinent languages.


What is happening in Wales and Northern Ireland, whose education systems are increasingly diverging from England’s (e.g. no EBacc) but who share the GCSE exams?

In Wales we have seen some very big drops in French and German entries for GCSE over the last 5 years – 29% and 33% respectively. Spanish too has dropped by 7% after a previous period of growth, but Welsh as a second language has edged up by 2%. This year ‘Other languages’ grew in Wales by 15%, but actual numbers are small. It has been noted previously that Wales performs worst of the UK nations in terms of languages, and this year’s figures showing further declines in French, German and Spanish, will bring no comfort to those working hard to turn the situation around.

In Northern Ireland, German has bucked the trend this year by showing an increase in numbers after at least four years of decline. However it has still lost 9% of numbers in 5 years. Spanish on the other hand, which had a particularly high entry last year, has declined slightly this year, but the overall trend is still up. French is suffering in Northern Ireland, with a 19% drop over 5 years. Entries for other languages, although involving small numbers, have risen by 18% over 5 years. Overall, entries for languages at GCSE (including Irish) have dropped by 10% in 5 years and by 3% since last year.

The bleak picture for languages in Wales and Northern Ireland therefore contributes unfavourably to the overall UK figures.

Changes in performance tables in England add a further complication this year for interpreting the figures. Earlier this summer, Ofqual published a provisional breakdown of GCSE entries for England which separated out candidates in Year 11, whose results will count in this year’s performance tables, from those sitting the exams earlier or in the sixth form. These showed that although there had been a substantial decline in early entries, those for Year 11 in fact showed a 2% increase. So the jury is still out on whether the EBacc has stalled or whether the message is slowly getting through that language learning is indeed an important part of a rounded education.

Reaction from the languages community has included this from Vicky Gough at the British Council:

“It’s disappointing to see that recent growth in the number of foreign language GCSEs has stalled. Just three years after we hit a record low, and with a lack of language skills costing the UK economy almost £50 billion a year, we can’t afford to stand still – let alone see more declines.

“The only silver lining today is that Spanish has bucked the trend and continues to grow, with slight increases in the small number of students taking Chinese, Portuguese and Russian. All of these feature on the list of languages the UK most needs in the British Council’s recent Languages for the Future report. But this isn’t enough to compensate for the long-term declines in languages like French and German, which employers still value very highly.

“From next month, all children will start learning a language at the age of seven, and this is definitely a positive step. But, it’ll be years before those children take their GCSEs, so we need to continue working hard to ensure that all our young people realise just how important language skills are for life, work, and the UK’s future.”

Prof Mike Kelly, of the University of Southampton, said: “It is good news that the slide in take up of languages at GCSE seems to have been halted. Following last year’s encouraging bounce back, this year’s results show that a slightly larger proportion of 16 year olds have taken a language exam. This follows the increased take-up at AS level announced last week. A lot of hard work has gone into inspiring young people to study languages and it is now time for the government to make a language compulsory for all 14-16 year olds.”

Written by:

Teresa Tinsley, Alcantara Communications, 21 August 2014

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