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Falling modern language entries at A-level

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

Once again in 2013 the number of students taking A-level languages has declined overall, with only Spanish seriously bucking the trend by holding its own. In The Independent today Andrew Hall, head of AQA, denied that languages are harder than other subjects. If he is well informed, he knows better than this. But severe grading of languages is only part of the problem.

In 1993 nearly 30,000 students entered for A-level French. In 2012 the figure was just over 12,500. Just compare with a few other common A-level subjects (I am grateful to Brian Stubbs for these figures, which I have rounded up or down - 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     2013: 11272
Spanish                4,800                           7,300      2013:  7651
German               11,000                          5,000      2013:  4242

So what has been going on? I believe a number of factors have led to the decline 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).
  • 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. 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 just recently with 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. Entries will rise in 2013 and this may slightly improve A-level entries. A bolder option would be to make languages compulsory in some form again, though this policy would be unpopular with schools and pupils, the coalition has rejected it and I have reservations about it.
  • 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 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.
  • Incentives could be given to encourage more study trips and exchanges.
  • The GCSE examination should be revised to make it more stimulating and to reward deeper understanding rather than rote learning. What is currently proposed is unconvincing and, in any case, academies and free schools can ignore the national curriculum.
  • 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 currently 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 just announced it wishes to look at this issue. We continue to see the results of their incompetence and political cowardice.
  • Lastly, and importantly, the post 16 curriculum should be broadened to allow studenst 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.

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