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Where did all the A-level linguists go?

All the figures below are from . Brian gets his figures from JCQ.

In 1993 29886 students did A-level French. In 2014 the figure was 10433.
In 1993 10857 students did A-level German. In 2014 the figure was 4187.
In 1993 4850 students did A-level Spanish. In 2014 the figure was 7601.

Taken together we have witnessed an enormous fall in the number of young people studying languages at A-level.

What happened?

In recent times there has been a focus on a number of factors, notably the relative difficulty of obtaining a high grade and the fall in the number of GCSE students following the decision to make languages optional at GCSE from 2004. ALCAB, in their input into the new A-levels, focussed more on what they saw as the unstimulating nature of A-level courses. Others have mentioned the influence of communicative language teaching methods over the years.

But let's look more carefully at what happened to the French numbers over recent years:

2014  10433      A-level entry all subjects 833807
2013  11272
2012  12511
2011  13196
2010    13850
2009    14333
2008    14885
2007    14477
2006    14650
2005    14484
2004    15149
2003    15531
2002    15614 
2001    17939
2000    18221
1999    21072
1998    23633
1997    25916
1996    27490 
1995    27563
1994    28942
1993    29886      A-level entry all subjects 734081

First, when one considers the rise in the overall number of A-levels taken, the fall in French looks even worse. (The same applies to German.)

Next, it is clear that the catastrophic slide in entries occurred from around 1996 to about 2002. Since 2002 the fall has been more gradual, perhaps more noticeable from around 2009.


1.  The decision to make languages optional at GCSE from 2004 did not have a significant effect on A-level take-up.

2.  Severe grading and accountability measures may have contributed to some extent in this millennium.

3.  Other factors were at work before 2002.

As regards the first point, this should not be a great surprise. The vast majority of students who opted out of languages post 2004 would have been weaker candidates who would not have gone on to do A-level French. The decision to make languages optional reduced hugely the number of linguists at age 15, but had little effect further up the chain.

As for the second point, the recent IPSOS/JCQ survey did suggest that some students were put off taking a language for fear of getting a lower grade. Languages were seen to be a riskier choice than other subjects. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the difficulty in obtaining an A* grade may be putting off some candidates in particular. In the same survey, by the way, students suggested they would prefer courses based more strongly on practical skills of communication than ones involving the study of culture, translation and essay. That may suggest ALCAB were wrong in their analysis that A-level languages were not cognitively challenging enough.

So what about point 3?

What happened in the 1990s?

I can only tentatively suggest what happened by looking at the numbers and from my own experience over that period.

Student choices did change in significant ways. I noted that fewer weaker students were opting for French, preferring to take the wider range of subjects on offer, for example Business Studies, Psychology, Theatre Studies, Religious Studies and PE.

If you look at the entries for subjects over that period from 1995 to 2002 these tendencies emerge:

Psychology jumped from  22111  to 34611.
Religious Studies went from 8933  to  10685 (rising to 24213 by 2014).
PE/Sport rose from 7686 to 17140.
Media/Film Studies rose from 7056 to 20172.
Expressive Arts rose from 8984 to 15059.
Business Studies rose from 22687 to 27680.

*See below for what happened with other subjects

Those figures may well suggest that we witnessed students opting for subjects which are sometimes viewed as easier. (In terms of getting higher grades, they are easier.) They may have opted for these as they became available and as schools offered choices more appropriate to the abilities and preferences of students.

Perhaps what we saw, therefore, was students of moderate aptitude who had traditionally chosen French as a third arts option going to other options to get better grades and do something they perceived as more interesting. We did not talk about severe grading in those days because accountability and targets were not all the rage and schools did not crunch the numbers as they do now, but it was understood that some subjects were easier than others.

It is unlikely that this accounts entirely for the disaffection with French and German in the 1990s. In addition, why did languages suffer more than other traditional subjects like history, geography and science? Here I am on much shakier ground. These questions occur to me:

Did the GCSE exam, introduced in 1987, have an effect on students' actual or perceived performance in languages. Are the traditionalist right? Did teaching get wishy-washy? Did we neglect firm grammatical foundations? Did we focus too much on functions and phrase book learning at the expense of solid skills and grammatical knowledge? Was this done to cater for the wider ability range we were teaching compared with the 1950s to 70s?

Was there too great a disconnect between the more modern, communication-based GCSE and the traditional A-level with its translation and literature? Did A-Level, influenced as it is by universities, simply not adapt enough to modern needs? Did students just think A-level was too hard and boring? Should A-level have changed more fundamentally than it did?

Did teaching actually get worse at KS3 and KS4, so that students were left unmotivated by the end of GCSE? Were timetables trimmed? Were teachers well trained enough? Did the growing supply of teachers from the rest of Europe adapt well enough to students' needs?

Did schools fail to value languages as highly as they had? What happened to the old notion that an ambitious and able arts student at A-level would do English, history and French? Did newer teaching methods contribute to this altered perception of languages?

I dare say there is material for a thesis there. It is clear, however, that student choices change over the years and that we could one day see languages post 16 become more popular again. Alas, there are currently no policy plans which will make it happen.


Postscript: in 1938 12.5% of all A-level entries were for French. In 2014 it was 1.25. There are more students now and more subjects, but it makes you think.


*Sociology fell by 8000 in that period before rising back to its 1995 figure of 30000 by 2014.
Politics fell by 3000 before rising again by 2014 to 13761.
Maths fell a little from 1993 to 2002, it seems, then rose rapidly in recent years to far exceed the 1993 numbers.
Law has stayed pretty steady over the years at around 12-15 000.
History fell somewhat up to 2002, then rose again by 2014 to exceed 1993 levels. Geography fell quite fast up to 2002, then held steady.
English has fallen slightly over the years.
Economics fell from 36428 to 17015. It has risen somewhat since.
Classical subjects have stayed steady over the years.
Art has risen slowly over the years.
Physics fell a bit up to 2002, whilst Biology and Chemistry rose somewhat and continue to rise.


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