For thirteen years there has been an annual Language Trends survey which "charts the health of language teaching and learning in England". It is currently administered by the CfBT Education Trust and British Council. As a Head of Department I used to dutifully complete its questionnaire every year. This year a total of 648 primary schools, 529 state-funded secondary schools, and 128 independent secondary schools responded to the survey, published yesterday, yielding response rates of 22, 27 and 26 per cent respectively.
The survey revealed a couple of significant trends.
Most notably, perhaps, is the fact that the policy of compulsory languages in primary schools is having the desired immediate impact. The report found that 99% of the schools who responded now offer languages in some form, with 12% saying they began this academic year. That's the good news.
The not so good news is the fact that, unsurprisingly, there is a larger percentage of primary teachers who have no more than a GCSE qualification. In addition, secondary teachers continue to report a wide range of experience in their pupils arriving in Y7. 44% of reporting primary schools said they had no contact with their secondaries.
I don't wish to go into the primary languages debate to any great extent, but it is probably fair to say that the quality of languages provision in primary schools is variable, sometimes excellent, sometimes poor. This is to be expected given the varying skills possessed by teachers and the pitifully poor financial support there has been for training. Further, even if there was more liaison between primaries and secondaries (hard to do in practice with so many different feeder schools in some areas), it is unlikely that Y7 teachers would be able to assume a good deal of embedded knowledge on which to base further progress. This will always be a messy area.
At KS3 a growing phenomenon has been noted this year, namely the "disapplication" of more and more pupils from languages, particularly in areas of social disadvantage, to allow them more time to work on maths and English. This is clearly the consequence of Ofsted pressure on schools to improve their RAISEOnline scores in the core subjects. I find it of cultural note that SLTs default to languages when they are looking for something for pupils to drop. Why not art, music or design technology? The answer is that languages are perceived as both hard and less important.
I do think there is an equal opportunities issue at stake here. Notwithstanding the fact that language learning can make a serious contribution to the development of literacy and communication skills, it is surely only fair that all students should get to have a go at learning a language during the whole of KS3. The status of MFL has already fallen at KS4, where 44% of schools who responded exclude some pupils from language study. Are we to let it wither at KS3 too? This is a concerning trend.
The report reaffirms what we know about A-level study. Enrolment has declined for a range of reasons including harsh grading compared to other subjects, poor arrangements for languages at KS3 and KS4, tight budgets (making it hard for schools to run small groups) and student perceptions of the risk of taking a subject which produces lower grades. The DfE is hoping its new MFL GCSE and A-levels will be more motivating to students. Regular readers of my blog will know what I feel about that!
As regards preferred languages, Spanish has seen rising take-up in secondary schools, whilst French and German continue on the decline. This has to do with the perception that Spanish is easier, especially phonologically, has cultural associations which young people value more highly and the fact that there has been a growing supply of qualified Spanish teachers over time.
This is, alas, not a golden age of language learning and teaching. Was there ever such an age? I would love to see better timetabling at KS2, KS3 and KS4, a greater degree of compulsion at KS4 to raise the status of MFL, less conservative A-levels, fairer exam grading and a broadening of post 16 provision to allow more students to continue a language after 16 without fear.
The executive summary of the survey is here.
The full report is here.