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MFL degrees for the wealthy

Today's Observer reports that the Sutton Trust, an education charity, has released a report based on 2008 data showing that students from wealthier backgrounds and independent schools make up a disproportionately large percentage of young people studying arts subjects, and particularly modern languages.

30% of languages graduates came from the wealthiest homes. UCAS figures show that while 9% of all graduates come from independent schools, for modern languages the figure is 23%. It is between 12% and 20% for history, classics and archaeology degrees. Languages are increasingly becoming the preserve of well-to-do classes.

I have no idea how these numbers compare with those of the past, but it is a concern that the rapid decline in modern languages at key Stage 4 and at A-level is felt almost uniquely in the state, comprehensive sector. Even in the independent and selective sector, languages have come under pressure because of the wider range of options available. At my own (selective) school, the growth and popularity of subjects such as psychology, theatre studies and business studies at A-level, has led to a slight reduction in those studying A-level languages. In our own case, it has also been notable that the ability profile of A-level linguists has risen. We have fewer less able students taking on a language at A-level. The data on A-level grades reveals that this is a national phenomenon.

At Ripon Grammar School we have seen a rise in the number of students doing French in Y12 (because of the AS level system), but a fall in those doing A2 level. 15 years ago we would have averaged around 18-22 at A2 level. We now get around 12 to 15. At AS level we see between 20 and 30.

Maybe it is a good thing that students have more choice and a chance to fulfil themselves in subjects they enjoy and are good at, but it remains the case that Britain is short of well qualified linguists and that many quite able students in state schools are falling by the wayside even before they get to A-level.


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