Compulsory GCSE languages?

Written by: Ellie Baker | Published:
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As a linguist I totally agree, but right now as a teacher I’m not sure I do. At my school it is ...

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It was once a highly esteemed part of the curriculum, but MFL has been thrown into the ‘too hard’ basket. The time has come to make languages compulsory at GCSE once again, says Ellie Baker

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a whole new level of uncertainty and disruption in post-Brexit Britain and across the world. Intercultural understanding is at risk as division between communities widens due to social isolation and a dramatic decline in travel. The need for foreign language learning is more important than ever to help bridge these gaps.

It is difficult to understand where the marginalisation of modern foreign languages (MFL) has come from and, more importantly, why we have allowed this to happen.

Learning a foreign language at school was never really viewed as easy, but the validity of having a second or third language under your belt was never questioned. But in 2020 the narrative could not be more different.

The government’s campaign to raise the profile of STEM subjects has left language studies on the decline. We are now seeing record-low numbers of students opting for second language studies at GCSE level. Over the past five years, there has been a 19 per cent reduction in entries for GCSE languages, with French and German each seeing declines of 30 per cent over this period (Tinsley, 2019).

These alarming numbers cannot be ignored if we still hope to produce well-rounded individuals with the skills to thrive in an ever-changing global marketplace.

The 2004 decision by the government to make MFL non-compulsory from year 10 and beyond was an event I will never forget. I was an NQT at the time.

The impact was devastating as schools saw languages uptake drop from the average 30-student classroom to 10 or fewer. MFL teachers were facing uncertainty and apathetic teens had the perfect excuse to jack it in. Misinformed heads were able to justify this due to the improvement in overall exam results.

This is a fundamentally flawed and short-sighted view. With language study requirements stripped back to as little as one hour a week at key stage 3 in many schools, how can a pupil ever reach a level where they feel confident in a foreign language? And if they are not given opportunity to master MFL then they will never consider it at GCSE.

An ideal approach would be getting pupils into language learning early. Studies suggest that establishing foreign language studies is best before the age of 10 (Ghasemi & Hashemi, 2011). Children learn by being submerged in multilingual surroundings. At this early stage of learning and development, language is often obtained much faster and retained more easily.

In 2014, the government finally committed to making language studies statutory at key stage 2. But language studies today are still lacking drive and consistency. Having said this, at least there is now evidence that primary schools are teaching a language in key stage 2 (with 75 per cent having started teaching a language more than five years ago). A third are teaching languages in key stage 1, too (Tinsley, 2019).

Young people need guidance and encouragement and should not be wrongly programmed into believing that learning a second language is pointless simply to boost a school’s data and position. Does this happen in your school? If so, we must ask ourselves: why did we become teachers in the first place?
If this does not convince you, here are six more reasons why heads need to put languages back on their list of priorities:

  1. Languages make you more intelligent (Olulade et al, 2016). The intense mental stimulation of learning a language helps maintain and grow cognitive function. Higher cognitive skills also benefit students in other subjects such as mathematics and science. This is why so many red brick universities seek out linguists, even on non-language degrees (Oxford University is one example).
  2. Languages promote intercultural understanding, something of ever-increasing importance in this world of global trade, travel and communication. This is of special significance in underprivileged areas where language studies can raise aspiration and introduce pupils to new pathways.
  3. MFL studies future-proof you. If languages make you more appealing to employers in today’s market, imagine what they will do for you in 10 years’ time.
  4. Languages open windows when doors close. My ex-pupil Sam wanted to study medicine, yet no UK university would accept him, so he turned his A level Spanish into an opportunity. He is about to qualify as a doctor at the University of Valencia.
  5. Languages expand your financial prospects. Fluency in a second language can lead to well-paying job prospects in countless industries including diplomacy, interpreting, marketing and international aid.
  6. Our current political situation is one of uncertainty. Divorcing with the EU will have a huge impact on our students’ futures. The best way to mitigate this is to equip them with the skills to bridge cultural and linguistic gaps.

We need to be courageous and encourage our senior leaders to commit to the future of our pupils by making MFL compulsory in schools at GCSE. With the added pressures of Covid “catch-up”, our languages skill gap will fast become a gaping chasm if we continue down our current path.

We are slowly starting to see some of the effects that Covid-19 is having on our communities and our young people. That is why it is more necessary than ever that our children start developing the language skills now that will be essential in the years to come as we re-build and recover from the huge economic, cultural and social impacts of 2020.

As teachers we should be developing well-rounded, socially and economically conscious young individuals with the skills and experience to thrive in a multicultural society. We must put a stop to this language-free epidemic and put MFL back on the GCSE agenda.

  • Ellie Baker is an MFL specialist, writer and is the founder of BilinguaSing, a company that offers bilingual music classes for 0 to 11s.

Further information & resources

Great article about the importance of studying language. Can anyone offer any advice?
My daughter is in year 9 and just taken her options.
She has been told there will be NO French GCSE offered at all as there was not enough take up. She was made to choose between French and Spanish at the start of the year so can't just pick up Spanish. My question is: Are schools allowed to make it impossible for a student to study a language in KS4?

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Alex, this is my current problem, having just encouraged my eldest through his Spanish GCSE which he tried to opt out of and was unable to. We now discover that it will be his worst grade and it seems from your comment not because he is 'rubbish' at it! I now have the same problem with my youngest who wants to opt out of it and the school are telling me he can't, that only children who have challenges in literacy are able to drop the language. Advice please, should I continue to fight to let him opt out or help him struggle through.
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Thanks for the comments - Alex, I totally feel your pain! In a vacuum, it's not a solution; just part of the whole puzzle. Education needs to be looked at holistically, from preschool onwards.
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As a linguist I totally agree, but right now as a teacher I’m not sure I do. At my school it is compulsory for most to do an MFL GCSE, but we have been dealing with constant battles from the kids and even parents. They don’t want to do it and my goodness don’t they let us know it. It’s disheartening and not particularly rewarding. Also, as it is not compulsory nationwide, it pushes grade boundaries right up. This means it’s far more difficult to achieve a grade 4 in MFL compared to other subjects. Often their MFL grade is their lowest grade. So from their point of view, it was a pointless few years struggling to do something they didn’t want to and then not even getting a decent grade at the end of it, whether they worked hard or not. If it was made compulsory, yes many of those issues would be potentially improved, but for now as a teacher in one of those schools which, with the best intentions, made it compulsory, I’m just not convinced it’s been a success.
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Great article, I completely agree with everything you mention! I have always been very disheartened by our country’s approach to language learning, when other countries will have their children almost up to fluency by the time they leave school! More definitely needs to be done and children should be encouraged to reach their full potential. I took Spanish and French at GCSE and as someone who actually enjoyed languages, I felt I wasn’t challenged enough as they kept the level easy enough for those who struggled. This meant I felt very underprepared going on to college and university studying languages!
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