Two in three state secondary schools in England teach only one foreign language | languages

Two-thirds of English state secondary schools teach only one foreign language, research shows, undermining the government’s efforts to shore up the numbers of pupils learning modern languages.

This year’s Language Trends report by the British Council surveyed state and private secondary schools in England about their linguistic provisions. With growing evidence that state schools were cutting the number of languages ​​taught, the 2023 report specifically asked for the first time if pupils learned more than one language.

While more than half (53%) of independent and private schools teach every pupil at least two languages ​​in years 7-9 (key stage 3), fewer than one in five (16%) state schools do, with 66% teaching only one foreign language at key stage 3.

Thirty-five per cent of state secondary schools teach German at key stage 3, and 38% to GCSE, the report found, compared with more than 85% offering French and more than three-quarters Spanish, suggesting German is disproportionately affected by this shift to teaching a single language in state schools. In contrast, three-quarters of independent schools teach German in years 7-9 and 80% at key stage 4.

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Language experts questioned whether the government’s new German promotion programme, launched this year as part of a £15m language hubs program to tackle a systemic decline in the numbers taking language GCSEs and A-levels, had gone far enough.

Katrin Kohl, a professor of German at the University of Oxford, said: “While the government’s language hubs and German promotion project are important and very welcome, these initiatives need more funding if they’re to have a real impact and counteract the continuous attrition in language learning we are seeing.

“If we don’t act now, we could end up in a situation where vanishingly few state schools teach German. This would restrict the opportunity to learn German to independent schools, and effectively break the pipeline through to universities and teaching provisions.

School budgets are so tight that the number of languages ​​taught is the first to go and German is too often the casualty. It’s easier to offer Spanish and French than to offer a non-Romance language.”

Suzanne O’Farrell, a modern foreign languages ​​consultant for the Association of School and College Leaders, said that in addition to promoting German and other languages, the Department for Education and Ofqual had to tackle “the severe grading of languages ​​at GCSE and A-level, teacher recruitment and retention, funding and performance measures if we are to see a meaningful increase in the uptake of languages ​​in our schools”.

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The British Council report also highlights just how far adrift the government is from meeting its Ebacc target that 90% of pupils study a GCSE in a modern foreign language from September 2024. Just one in 10 responding state schools said all pupils were taking a language for GCSE, compared with three in 10 independent schools.

“We estimate that 250,000 more pupils would need to take a GCSE in a modern foreign language for the government to realize its [Ebacc] ambition,” said Ian Collen, a senior lecturer in modern languages ​​education at Queen’s University Belfast and author of the report.

Neil Kenny, a professor of French at the University of Oxford and the British Academy’s lead fellow for languages, said the limited choice reflected the self-reinforcing cycle of supply and demand.

Declining pupil interest was resulting in schools having to offer a number of options for pupils interested in languages. Fewer pupils studying languages ​​at school had resulted in fewer studying them at university, leading to a teacher shortage in languages.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “In our globalized economy, language skills add value and widen opportunities for individuals, communities and society and so it’s excellent to see in this report how popular Spanish has become as an A-level choice. The department is committed to providing high quality language teaching in schools, increasing languages ​​uptake at GCSE and leveling up opportunities for disadvantaged pupils.

“German is a strategically important language to the UK, particularly with regard to business and industry and so to boost the take up of German in schools, there will be a distinct German promotion project within our new £14.9m Language Hubs programme.”

Additional reporting by Rachel Hall

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