Is the drop in pupils taking languages affecting independent schools yet?

Posted on: 08 Sept 2015

Most people will have recently read in the press that fewer young people in this country are learning languages. Sara Davidson, Head of Modern Languages at Oundle School, discusses the benefit of language learning...

Numbers are continuing to fall at GCSE as well as at A level and many schools are phasing the languages out that are either least popular or have the least expertise amongst the teaching staff. This has affected university language departments too who have had to economise and shut down departments or merge languages into another faculty. It has also had a knock-on effect on the recruitment of language teachers. It is becoming increasingly difficult to appoint new language teachers because good linguists are in such short supply. This will, no doubt, provide state schools with a major challenge with the introduction of the Ebacc, where the study of a language is required, and is a matter that I know the Department for Education is looking into at the moment.

It has also been widely reported that languages are becoming an elitist subject, taught mainly in independent schools. Wisely, most independent schools decided to keep a modern language as one of the core subjects for GCSE back in 2004 when they were made non-compulsory, and this is what has saved the language departments in our schools. Not all language departments have been as fortunate as we have at Oundle, however, where we have had the support from the senior management team to run courses at GCSE, IGCSE, A level and Pre-U in a total of seven languages and were able to open a newly refurbished state-of-the-art language centre two years ago. Even in independent schools numbers are falling, so none of us are ‘safe’. Recognition of the importance of languages is crucial from the senior management team and parents, as well as teachers in other departments, and unfortunately not all independent schools are lucky in this respect.

So what have we done wrong in the UK? Where is the value we should be putting on language learning? When I was at school and indeed when I first started teaching (only just over twenty years ago!), language departments were booming. The decision to make languages non-compulsory affected all schools as it gave out a negative message about the status and value of learning a language. Then, a few years later, controlled assessments were brought in at GCSE and A levels became less culture-based and more topic-based. The controlled assessments began to dominate our teaching - pupils quickly realised that learning chunks of text by heart could get you a good mark, while the challenge and joy that came with manipulating and playing with language and creating your own oral or written texts disappeared. It was about learning by heart (even if you didn’t always understand what you were saying) and the quality of linguists moving into the Sixth Form diminished. Then along came the issue of unpredictable marking that we started to see from the examination boards at both GCSE and A level and which has caused problems year on year. Plus of course, the fact that it has been continually harder to get A*s in languages than in other subjects. On top of all this, the message that only STEM subjects can lead to a good career has been drilled into young people via the media and even the government. In response, I urge all pupils to consider this; wouldn’t STEM plus a language make you a real coup for an employer?

Recently, I have been wondering if our whole approach to language learning in this country is in fact wrong. Should we not be using more immersion techniques? Are we too topic-focused (on sometimes not very interesting topics)? At GCSE, pupils learn how to talk mainly about themselves (family, hobbies, holidays, school etc) and at A level they learn a lot about social problems, instead of learning vocabulary areas that may be more relevant or even interesting to them. Is the way we are taught English in schools part of the problem too? What can we learn from polyglots who learn languages as a hobby and are highly successful at doing so? What are they doing right? This is something I will be exploring this month with our Polyglot-in-Residence who is joining us for the European Day of Languages this year. What can we learn from our European counterparts? Are we too exam-focused? And could we be exploiting technology more to our advantage? At Oundle we are trying to incorporate film and also Skype more into our lessons – time will tell if this is successful but it is already proving to be a good lure for pupils interested in the cultural aspects of languages.

Of course, I am not denying that in the UK, we simply do not feel the necessity to learn a language as strongly as top language-learning countries like Sweden, Finland, Belgium and the Netherlands do. We are also at a disadvantage to other European countries where they are surrounded by English through music, films, the media, social media and even advertising in their daily lives. We speak the world language here, but this in turn should not make us complacent and lazy. From an economic standpoint, we are leaving ourselves in a vulnerable position if we are going to rely upon the language skills of other countries, not to mention the fact that our young people will be pipped to the post by their European counterparts for the top jobs in international companies. Learning a language gives you access to other cultures that you simply cannot claim if you are monolingual. The insight into other worlds can have life-changing effects, while the benefits of bilingualism on the brain are numerous…

Language learning is definitely becoming a problem that needs to be addressed in independent schools and we must all (managers, parents, teachers and pupils) act now. Departments need, of course, to reflect constantly on their practice but promoting the benefit of learning languages is a team effort and cannot be achieved by individual language teachers or language departments. We need a national change of mindset.

Sara Davidson Head of Modern Languages, Oundle School Chair of the Independent Schools Modern Languages Association (ISMLA)

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