The reasons behind the decline in languages at A level

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The latest Languages Trends study has revealed yet further decline in language learning, with specific concerns about post-16 study. Kathryn Board and Teresa Tinsley consider some of the reasons behind the continuing problems.

The Language Trends survey has tracked what is happening in language teaching in English schools from both the state and independent sectors every year since 2002. 

This authoritative annual report provides both data as well as direct feedback from teachers on the impact of education policies and initiatives on the teaching of languages in mainstream education.

Information on the study of languages beyond key stage 4 is of particular interest because of the indicators it provides for potential university applications to degree courses in languages.

It also provides evidence of the numbers of young people entering work who are able to use languages or those who are about to embark on higher level studies in a wide range of subjects who might be able to enhance those studies with skills in another language. 

Tracking the data from annual GCSE and A level examination results and working with a large randomly selected sample of schools, the Language Trends survey has been able to show that between 1996 and 2013 there has been an overall drop of 31 per cent in number of entries for A levels in languages with serious consequences for university language departments and employers.

Breaking this overall decline down into specific languages reveals that the numbers for both French and German have dropped by 57 and 59 per cent respectively. In the same period Spanish has grown by 59 per cent and other languages have collectively increased by 100 per cent from a very small base.

In the most recently published report there is once again evidence of the continuing decline in the study of languages post-16 prompting researchers to analyse further both the distribution of the decline as well as the causes for it. 

Fewer than half of A level entries from 16 to 18-year-olds come from state schools. One third of entries come from the independent sector and 19 per cent come from the further education/6th form college sector.

However, given the relatively small number of independent schools compared to the numbers of state schools and 6th form colleges (and their disproportionately large contribution to A level entry numbers and subsequent take-up of degree level courses in languages at university), it was particularly concerning to note that this year 43 per cent (compared to 35 per cent in 2012 and 30 per cent in 2011) of independent schools reported a decline in the number of students studying a language to A level. In fact, only 18 per cent reported an increase in numbers. 

In the state sector 30 per cent of schools also report a decline in the numbers of students opting to study a language to A level but this is more or less balanced by 29 per cent of state schools reporting an increase in numbers. 

The feedback provided by teachers who responded to this year’s survey provides rich evidence of the reasons for the decline in the study of languages to A level. These include the following issues.

A* grades

First was the difficulty of obtaining much needed A* grades in languages. With university places riding on the achievement of A* grades, many students understandably prefer to opt for subjects where success is more assured and where marking is more consistent. 

The issue of severe grading and inconsistent marking for A levels in languages is the subject of intense discussion between representatives of the subject associations and officials at the Department for Education.

Small numbers

The numbers of post-16 students opting to do languages at A level are lower than they are for many other subjects. 

Small numbers coupled with pressures on timetabling and funding can therefore easily result in school leaders having to close languages courses because they are not financially viable.

This explains to some extent the decline in language courses mentioned by some state schools and the increase mentioned by others – this year’s survey provides evidence that some schools are grouping together to be able to provide students who wish to do A levels in languages with the opportunity to do so.

Value of languages

Many students and their parents do not see the value of languages for career prospects and employment and most universities do not counter these views in their prospectuses and application processes. 

Early entry

The practice of early entry GCSE (where students take their GCSE in a language early to free them up to study “more important” GCSE subjects in years 10 and 11) also has an adverse effect on the take-up of languages post-16. 

To quote one respondent to this year’s survey: “We lost students at key stage 5 for French and German because we did early entry for the more able who completed their GCSE in year 10 and then effectively gave up languages, making the chance of them picking them up again in year 12 virtually zero.”

EAL students

Where schools report an increase in the numbers of their students studying a language at A level it is frequently the result of collaboration between schools to make courses viable (as mentioned above) or the result of students with English as an additional language (EAL) who are keen to achieve an A level in their first language. 

For example, in London 1,445 out of a total of 3,690 A level language entries (36 per cent) were for modern languages other than French, German and Spanish. There is a clear correlation with the very high proportion (49 per cent) of pupils in London secondary schools who have EAL (this figure is 14 per cent in the rest of the country). 

AS to A level

The Language Trends survey also asked schools about their continuation rates between AS and A2. Responses show that this is lower than for other subjects being studied at A level and that the proportion of schools in both the state and independent sectors reporting low and declining continuation rates is increasing year-on-year.

Reasons given include the large step increase in difficulty between GCSE and A level, the difficulty of predicting grades and being certain of achieving A grades at A2 and the lack of value of languages in comparison with other subjects (such as STEM subjects).

A level reform

Only 52 per cent of teachers in independent schools and 36 per cent in state schools said that they believe the reforms to A levels being introduced will result in a better reflection of students’ competence and only five per cent believe that the move to a terminal examination at A level will improve take-up by students after GCSE. 

One teacher said: “I am concerned that the low numbers in languages may drop further as students starting the course will now choose other subjects knowing that they cannot just do an AS, dropping the subject after year 12. Numbers will not allow us to run both AS courses and A2 courses.”

Conclusions

The unabated decline in the numbers of students choosing to take a language at A level should be of concern to educationalists, employers and politicians. In spite of the many reports demonstrating the importance of language skills to employers and the country’s economic prosperity, there clearly remains much to be done to show young people the value of languages.

  • Kathryn Board, an advisor for CfBT Education Trust, and Teresa Tinsley, an independent consultant, are authors of Language Trends 2013/14.

Further information
Language Trends 2013/14, published jointly by CfBT Education Trust and the British Council, can be downloaded from www.cfbt.com/Research/Research-library/2014/r-language-trends-2014 


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