How can we tackle the decline of modern languages?

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By Dr Adam Cooke, Lecturer in Language Education
School of Education, University of Birmingham

The idea that languages may be struggling as a curriculum area is hardly new. The legendary Eric Hawkins first discussed a crisis in language learning way back in 1976. The issues so prevalent then: limited take up during the later secondary years; unsuitability of curriculum and a dearth language teachers are as relevant now. Many in the languages world may agree that schools should teach languages from the ages of 5 to 18 to reverse the decline in the subject. However, the investment needed would be quite considerable. Language learning at KS2 has been compulsory since the 2014 National Curriculum, but the number of primary school pupils with access to languages on the curriculum is pitifully low. The same government which made the subject compulsory in 2014 ironically cut the funding to develop primary languages in 2010, funding which had been in place under the national strategy since the mid-2000s.

Currently, secondary schools must ensure that languages are compulsory at KS3 and that students have an entitlement to study the subject at KS4. Since languages lost its ‘statutory’ status in 2004, the decline in students taking the subject to GCSE has dropped from 78% of all 16-year-olds in 2001 to just 46% in 2018. To ensure that all students of secondary school age now have access to the languages curriculum would entail a massive recruitment programme.

With the collapse in language study at A Level and a year on year drop in the number of language graduates, the country would never be able to recruit enough home-grown professionals to deliver the subject from Primary to Sixth Form. Furthermore, UK language graduates are turning their backs on the profession; indeed a considerable number of language teaching trainees are recruited from mainland European Union Countries. Despite this, Initial Teacher Education has consistently year on year recruited under target for languages. This may worsen further as the insecurities of Brexit might well be (anecdotally) deterring our European neighbours from training here in the UK, at a time when arguably the country needs to keep its window on the world well and truly open.

However, none of this will matter if we do not review the language curriculum and grading system at KS4 and 5. The shift from a criterion-referenced GCSE up until 2010 to a norm-referenced monster over the last nine years has hit languages hard.

In a nutshell, the percentage of students that have access to pass grades (C or level 4 or higher) has been limited to around 70-75% since 2010, and this has been against a backdrop in falling numbers taking French and German at KS4. German has suffered the most, with GCSE cohort sizes almost halving over the last ten years whilst expectations in terms of performance have dramatically increased since only around 75% will ever pass, regardless of how talented the cohort may be.

Disappointingly, the issue of grading merely received a cursory footnote in the recent MFL Pedagogy Review (2019). Now is the time for radical action. Reform should see the return of criterion-referenced examinations at KS4 and KS5 as well as the need to investigate the case for languages becoming a double award at GCSE. The content and challenges of A-Level need to be rationalised to be fit for purpose. They should appeal to a broader demographic and financial incentives should be offered to Sixth Forms to run small groups of A Level language students.

Finally, let’s face up to the elephant in the room: withdrawal from the European Union will deal a deathly blow to any rationale for students learning European languages in our schools.

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