According to the British Council, 34% of state secondary schools have reported that Brexit has had a negative impact on language learning. It goes without saying, however, that other long-term factors are also playing their part.
In terms of parental attitudes and student motivation, languages are now increasingly perceived as less important than other school subjects. The report alleges that, since the EU referendum, the change has been widespread — and now encompasses large swathes of our state education system.
Author of the report, Teresa Tinsley, explained: “The research shows that there is a growing rift between schools where languages are valued and developed imaginatively as part of a stimulating curriculum and those which are struggling to overcome disadvantage and a growth in negative attitudes.”
Falling standards, limited opportunities
In a global marketplace, multilingualism is becoming increasingly important for 21st century businesses — and, instead of contracting, the horizon for those with a second language is expanding ever further.
Why, then, aren’t more pupils studying languages at school?
The answer to that question is best ascertained by studying one key factor: where they study. In 2018, the Language Trends Survey reported that schools in the most disadvantaged circumstances are three times more likely to have a low participation at GCSE level. That is in comparison to schools where the cohort is from the most affluent circumstances.
Tinsley continues: “These schools will need support and encouragement if all pupils across the board are to enjoy the enriching experience of learning a language.”
But what is this government doing to deal with the problem?
By 2022, it wants to see 75% of school pupils obtain the English Baccalaureate — a qualification of which language learning is a part.
It’s certainly a sizeable ambition, but it’s one which the government will be confident in achieving. Last year, the number of state schools where at least 75% of pupils study a language GCSE increased by 5%.
The wider picture, however, isn’t as positive.
Recent figures have revealed that the number of state schools where only up to 25% of pupils study a language GCSE has risen from 19% to 23% — and the examination data from across the whole of England is equally disheartening.
The number of pupils taking a GCSE in a modern language has fallen from 49% to 47%, and that’s with only a third of all students obtaining a grade C or above.
Over recent years, a consensus has developed which stipulates that rigorous examination forges better linguists. It appears, however, as though this stance is already leaving pupils behind.
68% of state schools are saying that low ability students were less likely to take a language GCSE than in previous school years.
On the other side of the educational divide, independent schools are performing much better when it comes to language learning. A staggering 82% of them have more than 75% of their Year 10 pupils studying a language.
Language learning and widening horizons
In real terms, state schools have seen their budgets squeezed over recent years. But with the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimating that spending per pupil is set to fall 6.5% by 2019-20, the belt-tightening looks set to continue.
Languages need to be championed and treated as a national priority so that young people are equipped with the knowledge and skills to live and work in a global economy
Since the financial crash, there has been a growing sense of disparity within the country at large. Year upon year, the divide between the rich and poor has widened — both economically and, as it turns out, linguistically.
Adviser to the British Council, Vicky Gough, says: “The opportunity to learn a language should be open to everyone, regardless of what kind of school they attend.
“At a time when it is more important than ever that the UK forges new relationships around the world, languages need to be championed and treated as a national priority so that young people are equipped with the knowledge and skills to live and work in a global economy.”
Former Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Willy Brandt, famously said: “If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen [you must speak German].” In the modern world, Brandt’s mantra is becoming more relevant by the year.
Currently, the most important languages to British businesses are French, German, Spanish, Mandarin and Polish. For the future, however, languages likes Arabic, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese will be brought increasingly to the fore.
Investment in language learning needs to be made, both in the public and private sector. Organisations who don’t employ staff with foreign language skills, or who fail to develop the skills of their existing staff, risk being left behind in a globalised economy.
To a certain extent, Britain’s future depends on its willingness to embrace multilingualism – and the only way it can do that is through the age-old repetition: “education, education, education.”