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Primary Education News
News Teachers call for return of foreign exchange trips to halt the decline of language skills
Risk-averse parents and reluctance of children to stay with strangers erode schooling tradition
Linguists are calling for a revival of the school foreign exchange trip to help tackle the crisis in language learning. Language teachers, including the head of the Independent Schools' Modern Language Association, say the dramatic decline in the numbers of pupils going abroad for home stays – where they are placed with a family as part of a twinning exercise with a school in continental Europe – is fuelling the dropping rates of children studying the subjects.
The Observer revealed last month that the drop in pupils studying modern languages is likely to lead to the closure of up to 40% of university language departments within a decade, with worries growing among employers and the Foreign Office about graduate recruitment.
Last month's GCSE results showed 44% of the cohort studying a modern language, an increase of 3% on 2012, with Spanish proving hugely popular. But that is unlikely to make much impact on the dearth of language skills: A-level results showed a further downturn in school leavers with language skills. French is down by 10% on 2012 and German by 11% – falls of 26% and 28% respectively over the past 10 years. Spanish is the good news story, up 33% over the decade. In Scotland, take-up of Spanish has doubled in 10 years, and Gaelic is up by a third, while German is in decline.
Pupils' visits to host families, usually in France or Germany, used to be a regular feature of school life, but health and safety regulations, risk-averse parents, and a reluctance among children to stay in a stranger's home mean the trips are disappearing from school life.
Nick Mair, chairman of the Independent Schools' Modern Language Association, who teaches at Dulwich College, London, said a revival was urgently needed in the state and private sectors. Exchange trips were, he said, worth at least half a grade in exams, and his school believed them so important that teachers were asked about them in job interviews.
"No one has any business being a teacher in languages if they aren't prepared to get involved with exchange trips and the cultural immersion they provide. It is difficult for teachers – that duty of care. If you do a trip well, nobody bats an eyelid; if you do it badly the rest of your career can be affected. We have 22 exchange trips, and the vast majority are home stays. We generally send two kids into the same home, which is very reassuring for them, and for parents."
Research by the British Council found that only 22% of British people are able to speak a foreign language well. But the council claims that the foreign exchange is still with us: it just does not include stays in the homes of host families.
Its schools adviser, Vicky Gough, said: "People talking about the end of schoolchildren making connections with foreign cultures is nonsense. What doesn't happen so much is the thing that you partner a school and stay with a family. Some of that is to do with child protection; some is that people just don't have the spare room. And British schoolchildren are more reluctant to leave their comfort zone. We had an inquiry from a French school recently but weren't able to find an exchange school for them.
"But we are seeing lots of exciting projects, such as a trip to Kurdistan for a group from Bury St Edmunds. Modern trips are less language-focused, and more about culture and communication."