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Falling modern languages entries at A-level 2016

This is an update of previous blogs following yet another year of decline in A-level modern language entries....

Once again in 2016 the number of students taking A-level languages has declined overall. Even Spanish has failed to buck the trend.

In 1993 nearly 30,000 students entered for A-level French. In 2016 the figure was 9672, down a few hundred from 2015. Just compare with a few other common A-level subjects (I am grateful to Brian Stubbs and JCQ for these figures, which I have rounded up or down in some cases - apologies for formatting):

                             1993                            2012

Maths                   66,000                         86,000
History                 46,000                         52,000
Geography           46,000                         32,000
Physics                38,000                         34,500 (fell, but rising since 2006)
Biology                48,000                         63,000
Chemistry            41,000                         49,000 (fell, but rising since 2003)
Psychology          22,000                         56,000
Religious studies   9,000                          23,000
Media,film,TV      7,000                          32,000
Business              23,000                          28,000

French                 30,000                         13,000     2016: 9672
Spanish                4,800                           7,300      2016: 8460 (down on 2015)
German               11,000                          5,000      2016: 3842

In 2016 the number doing "other modern languages" was 9209 (a number of these would be native speakers residing in England).

So what has been going on? I believe a number of factors have led to the decline, especially in French and German.

  • A-level students have a wider range of options in sixth forms and particularly sixth form colleges and many of what we might call the non-specialist linguists have gone to subjects such as psychology and business. These may be perceived to be more interesting or easier to get a good grade in (they are).
  • Funding cuts for college and sixth forms are making small entry subjects economically unviable. Some students would like to do languages, but cannot. This affects German in particular.
  • The supply of linguists coming through from GCSE has declined, though this may be a minor factor since French was on the slide during the 1990's, long before MFL became optional again in 2004
  • In the last few years there has been strong encouragement from government and schools to take STEM subjects (hence the recent rises in the sciences). This reflects a growing utilitarian trend among students to pick subjects which are valued highly by society and the jobs market.
  • It has become increasingly clear to students that it is harder to get a high grade in languages than most other subjects. In particular the A* grade is relatively much harder to achieve than in maths and science. MFL is seen as risky for university entry. The focus on targets and the transparency with which these are shared with students has sharpened the awareness of students to their likely outcomes.
  • There has been no move in the media, schools or from government (until recently with the EBacc) to value languages highly, despite the very favourable employment outcomes for linguists (in the top ten for university subjects)
  • Teaching approaches in MFL may have produced a generation of linguists less proficient in the skills needed for success at A-level (internalised grammatical understanding and its associated outcome, the ability to use language spontaneously). Coursework and controlled assessment may have played a role in this, but the problem goes back further and 1990's course books thin on high quality grammatical progression did not help matters.
  • Lack of curriculum time and poor timetabling at KS3 and KS4 - lack of regular contact - has led to weakly embedded skills so students lack the confidence to continue beyond GCSE.
  • Mike Kelly has suggested that more negative national attitudes to foreign cultures may be playing a role. I am a little sceptical about this and wonder how much young people pick up on national political trends.
It seems a little ironic that as the world gets smaller and young people travel and work more widely, the popularity of languages has waned dramatically, to the point where the UK is perilously short of skilled linguists for business and diplomacy. What could be done to address this?

  • Government should be raising the status of modern languages. The EBacc is a crafty step in the right direction, using league tables to shift schools' curricula and option policies. GCSE entries rose in 2013 and may do so again in the future with the 90% GCSE take-up target. This may slightly improve A-level entries.
  • So-called top universities could make a GCSE qualification in languages at grade B or above compulsory for entry. This would have a dramatic effect on GCSE take-up. UCL have shown the way in this. The current generation of students are highly aware of what they need to reach their destination. It is good, at least, that MFL has the status of "facilitating subject" for the Russell Group.
  • School leaders could change their perception of languages, valuing them more highly on the timetable and awarding them a similar status to maths and English.
  • Government could reward MFL teacher trainees more generously in order to raise the quality of entrants to the profession.
  • Having made MFL compulsory at KS2, resources need to be allocated for resources and training. Investment has so far been pitiful.
  • Incentives could be given to encourage more study trips and exchanges.
  • The GCSE examination should be revised to make it more stimulating.the latest version of GCSE is an improvement in some ways (not others, e.g. translation and literary extracts), but will make little difference.
  • Course book publishers could be less slavish to the exam specifications and actually produce stimulating and challenging resources.
  • The issue of grading in MFL should be addressed, both at GCSE and A-level. We still suffer from severe grading. How about going in the opposite direction and making languages relatively easier in grading terms, recognising their inherent difficulty for pupils? Ofqual has show recently how easy it is to get the grades you want. Several years too late Ofqual has been looking at this issue.
  • Lastly, and importantly, the post 16 curriculum should be broadened to allow students to continue with a language for longer.
Overall, my educated guess is that Britain will not suddenly start falling in love with languages, nor will schools, whose leaders are the product of their society. But the government and universities could easily rig the system to make modern languages more attractive and maybe this is where they should start. Too many young people are missing out on the unique rewards and job prospects which language learning brings.

Comments

  1. Perhaps mfl teaching has to move towards the way Art is taught in schools. Languages are not going to get more timetable time anytime soon. This means more responsibility has to be given to pupils to develop their language learning skills in their own time. Teachers will have to become guiding hands rather than the font of all information.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for commenting. My feeling is that, long term, our post 16 curriculum needs broadening. No eady fixes for anglophone nations, though.

    ReplyDelete
  3. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/11823925/The-curious-case-of-the-French-boy-who-failed-AS-Level-French.html
    If this has only happened once AS/A2 at Mfl are worthless.
    To go back to my original point students have got to fall in love with the language they are learning. Like Art they would be learning their craft at least an hour a day as well as school time.Perhaps what I mean is over learning the curriculum. But as the accompanying story may attest being too good is not valued by examiners and may actually be punished. What a state of affairs.

    ReplyDelete
  4. If a student's exam technique or written skills are poor they will get a low grade. That can happen, in rare cases, to natives. As regards the art analogy, good teachers will set plenty of stimulating homework to encourage autonomy too.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The lad fluent in French got an E. And got an A in maths. So obviously has some ability in passing exams in UK system. Just begs the question what is the mfl exam testing?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Answer: a range of speaking, reading, listening and writing skills.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I am getting what you mean. May I ask looking at the other side of the coin. What proportion of the students you have taught to AS/A2 level were fluent in their particular language by the time they left school?

    ReplyDelete
  8. It depends what you mean by fluent, but the large majority of my students could converse on a good range of topics. Standards are high for the relatively few who do A-level languages. They tend to be more able students and often keen linguists. The crisis, if there is one, is numbers, not teaching or quality of courses.

    ReplyDelete

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