On 17th January 2020 the House of Commons published a briefing paper on language teaching in schools in England. It highlights results from a European Commission survey which reported that only 32% of 16-30 year olds in the UK felt confident reading and writing in two or more languages. To put this in (a rather dismal) perspective, the average across all EU member states is 80%. Yet, it is perhaps unsurprising that this number is so low given that fewer than half of secondary school students in England currently choose to study a language at Key Stage 4 (age 14-16). Given the strategic importance of languages both socially and economically, the Government has set a target to increase the proportion of students studying languages at Key Stage 4 to 90% by 2025 (as part of the English Baccalaureate).
But what do languages teachers think of this and what needs to be taken into consideration in order to achieve these targets? I took to social media to find out. A total of 229 teachers responded to a (very) informal poll I posted on Twitter and several Facebook groups for UK Modern Languages teachers. First of all, I asked when they felt language learning should be compulsory in schools. Here’s what they said:
It is perhaps unsurprising that three quarters of the respondents felt that languages should be compulsory up to the age of 16 – they are languages teachers after all! However, there were different views about what this should look like, which leads me to the second part of the question. Those who opted for compulsory language study up to Key Stage 4 were also asked whether this should include a requirement to take the GCSE exam in its current form (which is perhaps viewed as a more traditional, ‘academic’ qualification), or whether there should be more flexibility to allow for alternative qualifications and forms of accreditation. Interestingly, 41% opted for the latter and this was also reflected strongly in the comments. Several teachers commented on the need for more “creative solutions” and “a wider range of qualifications” in order to raise the profile of language learning in schools and make it fully accessible to all. What also emerged was the need to value (and formally accredit) the wealth of existing language skills among heritage speakers in our schools. As an aside, it is also worth noting that recently there have also been discussions around developing a GCSE qualification in British Sign Language which would further broaden language provision in schools.
All in all, the comments expressed here by teachers are very much in line with recommendations from other recent reports by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages and HEPI and highlight the need for change at a policy level in order to make the target of 90% achievable. However, what several of the teachers also noted was that in order to be successful, any change in policy regarding the position of languages in the curriculum needs to be accompanied by what one teacher referred to as a “sea change in public attitude” more broadly. As we stand at a crossroads of political uncertainty, it is now more important than ever - both socially and economically - to ensure that post-Brexit UK has an international outlook. Raising the profile of languages in the curriculum is one way of contributing to this.
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