In the wake of the best GCSE results ever, there has been a lot of discussions about the decline of languages in the UK, with a specific focus in French “no longer in the top 10 of popular subjects”.
More and more people are coming to the conclusion that leaving the development of such sensitive skills to market forces only will be detrimental to our educational system, our economy and our country in general.
This post is not about why languages are so essential, most educated people seem to agree they are. However, even if not studying a language is a common regret for a lot of adults, we seem to be getting a lot of mixed messages about languages in the media.
Languages are difficult
Nothing of value has ever been achieved without effort-the issue with languages is that the sense of true achievement is delayed over several years.
Languages are badly-taught
There has been sporadic “non-news” items claiming that you can’t get by using the skills taught for a GCSE. Speaking is usually the one targeted, the argument being that rote learning is encouraged to pass the exam. If the exam encourages rote learning, then the exam needs to be looked at. So, does that make languages too easy to pass? Only if you have an outstanding memory.
The topic-based National Curriculum was another subject of debate: too narrow and vocabulary-based. The New Curriculum is now virtually content-free. What is relevant content then? Relevant content is linked to what interests you and who you are... isn’t that a bit inward-looking? Challenging is better than relevant.
Languages are marked harshly
There is a documented severe grading issue with languages but more confusion appears as the papers clamour “record numbers of A*-C”. So, is it easy to get a good grade or not? What it means is that your above average candidates move from very good to excellent whereas your average but decent linguists are finding it harder and harder to scrape through a C as the national co-hort becomes more and more selective.
The class divide
Private schools have kept languages on board as they know that a lot of parents value them and they are an asset for entering Higher Education. So why have state schools gone the other way?
League tables and tough A*-C targets have pushed schools into short-termism. This was mitigated by the introduction of the publication of figures including Maths, English and Science but as, unlike the publication of the Maths and English figures, the publication of the MFL statistics is devoid of any consequences for schools, there really is no incentive for schools other than Language Colleges to invest time, effort and money in languages.
Social labelling is rife: working class kids don’t wear blazers, they don’t study languages and they don’t go to university. Most of this labelling is self-inflicted and challenged in schools but deep down languages are still seen as something for the elite, something of a nice-but-not-essential luxury because, let’s face it, everybody speaks English abroad...
Social mobility cannot be achieved by developing a two-tier educational system, so ... back to compulsory languages?
Although I am a strong advocate of languages for ALL, I do not believe in GCSE for all. There is now a wider range of qualifications, like NVQs and Asset Languages, suitable for students who may not need a high level of foreign language proficiency in the future. The thing is, that should be their decision, not ours. By narrowing the curriculum and denying students the option to take languages, we are carrying on with social labelling and reinforcing the view that “languages are for posh kids”.
In addition, a move back to compulsion does not seem realistic in terms of staffing as I recall there was a staff shortage before languages were made optional...(coincidental, surely)
So, what about incentives for schools? ... and for students?
Students and parents need to know that languages will help them to get into ALL universities. This will give schools a clear message that a language-free curriculum would be detrimental to their best students.
The idea of a percentage of the cohort having to do languages seems a reasonable argument. How can we pretend to be on the Gifted & Talented list and not do a foreign language? That’s only 10%, so it is not even a very far-reaching target...
The key would be to ensure that ALL students can study a language if they want to. Recently, the demise of French was even mentioned on the French National Television. However, this information did not sound right: student do not always choose not to do French, it is more that they choose what they see as the easiest from a bunch of options or in some cases the choice has already been made for them by over-streaming the cohort (you are in the red stream, you can do Geography or Art).
The percentage of students studying languages at KS4 should be advertised with exam results, rather than the percentage of students getting A*-C at GCSE and other figures than can be affected by native speakers taking GCSEs in their home languages. I do believe bilingual students should gain recognition for their language skills, but the figure does not really show the school’s commitment to developing the language capacity in ALL students.
It is time to reverse the trend and political support is also key...