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Primary Education News
News Why is UK language teaching in crisis?
Policy changes and lower funding have created a huge skills gap in schools, threatening university departments with closure
Britain's foreign languages skills are in crisis. During the past month alone, ministers, university representatives, exam chiefs and industry bodies have each voiced their concern as entries to degree and A-level modern foreign language courses plummeted. So few young people are learning languages that in 10 years' time as many as 40% of university language departments are likely to close. Where did it all go wrong for UK language teaching?
The watershed moment came in 2004, when the government decided to make languages optional at GCSE, according to Shirley Lawes, subject leader for PGCE languages at the Institute of Education in London. "At the time, the argument put forward was that if languages were taught in primary schools then people would automatically want to carry on with them post-14."
But this assumption was misguided and naive, she says. "Languages are perceived to be difficult – in the context of schools being very conscious of exam results, people have been orientated towards other subjects."
And, while the 2002 national languages strategy – an initiative that gave primary heads eight years to introduce a foreign language at key stage 2 – did cause more schools to invest in languages, much of this progress was undone when funding for languages was reallocated to the general school budget.
"When it was first proposed that languages were to become part of the primary curriculum, there was a huge push in primaries – in terms of the upskilling of teachers and investment in new staff," says Ruth Bailey, lecturer in primary foreign languages at Goldsmiths, University of London. "With the change of government, all of that funding went.
"Before, local authorities provided primary language advisers who were able to co-ordinate what was happening between primary and secondaries – that's all disappeared now as well."
Policymakers have had plenty of laudable ideas over the past 10 years, argues Lawes – the problem is that they aren't backed up with funding and support. "All sorts of issues have emerged over the introduction of languages in primary school which haven't really been resolved."
One of those the problems is the shortage of language teachers which is affecting both primaries and secondaries. The drop in the number of students sitting GCSE and A-level languages has led to a reduced pool of language graduates. This, in turn, means far few people are considering becoming language teachers.
Despite the generous bursaries on offer – a consequence of languages being a shortage area – universities are still struggling to recruit trainees, says Bailey. "About half of our trainees are native speakers. Of course, having native teachers is really great, but if you have exclusively native speakers, that's almost admitting defeat."
And those teachers already in classroom, are faced with another major hurdle: the syllabus. At primary level a new curriculum to be introduced in 2014 will make languages compulsory. But despite demanding rigorous teaching, it gives very little guidance on how this should be implemented.
"Over the past 15 years we've been training teachers to deliver," says Lawes. "The micromanagement and prescription that has gone on means we now have teachers who don't know what to do. The curriculum is introducing huge changes, but it's only two sides of A4 in length."
While there are plenty of creative teachers around, she fears many are worried about the affect change might have on exam results. The syllabus for GCSE, which academics fear focuses too narrowly on mundane topics and testing students' memories, is also a cause for concern.
Young people are bored with describing their pets and what they do at the weekend, says Mike Kelly, a former adviser on the Department for Education's steering group on languages and now head of the government-funded Routes into Languages programme co-ordinating attempts to increase the uptake of language degrees in England.
"You've got to bear in mind that for 13-year-old kids, when they're making their subject choices, their decision depends heavily on what they enjoy studying."
Conscious that the language curriculum is failing to inspire young people, schools and the Department for Education are looking at ways to make lessons more stimulating. "This might be by delivering more interesting content – moving students away from just talking about their pets, and instead talking about interesting and challenging topics, such as cultural events."
A revised GCSE curriculum could also help to close the gap between key stage 4 and A-level, where students are expected to develop a thorough understanding of vocabulary and grammar, says Kelly.
He fears that languages are seen as "a risky subject to take at A-level" and welcomes the news that exam chiefs will investigate suggestions that A-level papers are marked too severely and unpredictably.
Curriculum changes and examination reviews aside, one of the main reasons languages have slumped in popularity is because their value isn't conveyed to students or headteachers, says Lid King, chair of Speak to the Future, a campaign for languages. "Languages have been seen as 'important but not essential', unlike the Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects.
"Whatever particular policies on language learning have been in force, there has always been a struggle to convince learners of their value. Even when languages were compulsory in the late 1990s, a large number of pupils abandoned them or achieved very little."
It's for this reason, argues King, that the decision to include languages in the Ebacc – a government league table measure that counts the proportion of pupils taking traditional subjects – had a limited effect.
And it's not just European languages that are undervalued – the curriculum leaves little room for community languages, says Kelly. "Not speaking English as a first language is sometimes seen as a problem in schools. More needs to be done to emphasise the value of languages such as Urdu and Bengali, which are very important to local communities."
While it's unrealistic to expect schools to teach a broader spectrum of languages given that there are so few trained staff, such languages are increasingly important at university level, says Anne Pauwels, dean of the faculty of languages and culture at Soas, University of London.
"It's been interesting for us to see that, despite the tuition fee rise, there has been an increase in the number of students applying to study languages such as Arabic and Japanese. It's likely that students who are thinking of doing a language more for employment reasons are starting to move towards these languages."
Universities are learning to be increasingly flexible in the way they offer language degrees, with many now providing language teaching as part of a joint honours courses, such as French and business.
Neil Carberry, employment and skills director at the CBI, the business lobby group, adds that even more specific language courses, taught as part of an apprenticeship or vocational course, could also help prepare young people for the needs of the economy.
"Of course we always want people to go to uni and study Molière, but we also need engineers who can go to Toulouse and converse with engineers there. One of things that the university technical colleges are doing is French for business."
The key to inspiring young people to take languages is offering a variety of teaching and, he says, showing young people that their skills will be valued.