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Language Trends Survey 2016-17

Every year since 2002 the British Council has conducted a survey of language teaching in primary and secondary schools in the UK, both in the state and independent sectors. This latest survey was carried out between September and December 2016. 2970 state secondary schools, 655 independent secondary schools and 6000 state primary school were invited to respond to a questionnaire. Responses were received from 701 state secondaries, 146 independent secondaries and 727 primary schools.

The main focus of this year's report , produced once again by Teresa Tinsley and Kathryn Board, was to see how schools, primaries, are responding to the long term aspiration of 90% of young people taking a GCSE in a language as part of the EBacc suite of subjects.

Primary schools - key findings

Although languages are becoming more embedded there are, unsurprisingly, large disparities in provision. Languages still have a low profile when compared with core subjects. Even so 88% of respondents expressed wholehearted commitment to primary languages, commenting on the social, personal and cognitive benefits language learning produces. Some respondents have concerns, however, that learning another language may be less beneficial to pupils already learning English as an Additional Language (EAL).

Schools offering less than the minimal 30 minutes a week tend to have more pupils on free school meals. Languages get sidelined when there seem to be other priorities. (This might suggest that the "class divide" in language learning starts young.)

The expertise of staff has increased a little with the percentage of teachers who are bilingual or with a degree level qualification has risen to 46% from 42% in 2015-16.

One notable point is the large gap between what primary schools report their pupils can do and what secondary school teachers see in Y7. 81% of primary teachers say that speaking in whole sentences is an expectation, only 7% of Y7 teachers report that pupils can do this. (This suggests that knowledge is poorly embedded owing to lack of input and practice. The report notes that this disparity also applies to other subjects.) The report notes that no progress has been made on the awkward transition between primary and secondary.

Secondary schools - key findings

Although many schools (38%) state they have plans to increase numbers at KS4, the number of dual linguists is falling, notably in the independent sector. A majority of schools have adjusted their curriculum to adapt to the new GCSE. Some have created a 3-year GCSE course from Y9, others have cut provision to one language. Few schools are offering an increase in the (inadequate) time offered to language learning. (Not necessarily a bad move, in my view. I would also add that the idea of a two or three year GCSE course always sounds odd to me. Surely the route to GCSE starts in Y7 or before.)

Financial factors are creating a growing disparity between state and private schools in terms of Foreign Language Assistant provision. This is regrettable and provides a further example of social disadvantage.

Spanish continues to increase in popularity, while German's decline continues. Under a half secondary schools offer German at KS3. GCSE take-up looks set to increase somewhat and there is evidence that the pupil premium has had a modest impact on increasing numbers.

Post-16 numbers continue to decline for reasons often reported before; severe grading, perceived difficulty of A-level languages, the lack of A* grades. many schools are also moving from four to three subjects in Y12 which is bound to affect take-up for languages.

Teacher supply is not reported as a major issue at the moment, but this may change if take-up rises for GCSE. Recruiting teachers with specialism in more than one language is proving more difficult, however. Financial cuts mean that independent school teachers get far more access to CPD than their state sector colleagues. This is very concerning.

As far as Foreign language Assistants are concerned, only 33% of state schools reported having one compared with 73% in the private sector.

Non-UK EU nationals who make up a considerable proportion of our MFL workforce are, not surprisingly, concerned about their own future status and access to programmes such as Erasmus +.


On a positive note it seems likely that the number of pupils doing a language up to GCSE will increase. The government's stated aim is now 75% by 2020, rising to 90% later. It's also welcome that primary schools are making such a great effort to spark pupils' interest in languages, even though provision remains patchy.

That said, what struck me most in this year's report was the growing social gulf between pupils who have access to more languages, greater learning time in primary and secondary and Foreign Language Assistants, and those who don't. On average pupils who fare worst go to hard-pressed state schools, often those with lower general attainment, while those in the independent sector continue to benefit from more opportunities to engage with native speakers in schools and abroad. This is both a social and geographical (north-south) divide.

Austerity is biting in other ways. Post-16 continues to cause great concern, with numbers continuing to fall, in part owing to cuts, in part because of the DfE's moves on AS levels. Anecdotally many schools, especially state schools, report that they can no longer afford to offer A-level courses with small groups while many schools are dropping the fourth AS level subject completely. (Staffing and exam fees become less costly.) Ofqual's move on A-level grading this year, as a one-off measure, is welcome, but severe grading is a chronic issue affecting take-up.


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