Guest Post: The double whammy

Roy Blatchford ponders the plight of languages in the nation’s schools.

The latest set of A Level and GCSE results (provisional data) in England makes for arresting reading for anyone interested in the teaching and learning of languages. The ‘arrest’ is in two parts.

First: MFL

At A level this year there were 8,300 students taking French, 3,058 taking German, and 3,334 taking Chinese. Decline of Europe, rise of the East so to speak. The significant decreases in entries for most European languages continue apace.

At GCSE, French and German saw further falls in entries from previous years. Spanish has bucked the trend, perhaps because young people can imagine having the chance to use the language on holiday. Perceived relevance is a key to uptake.

Whatever the statistics, these students are happily in possession of increasingly scarce qualifications – and to know and use another language is a gift for life. Yet just what numbers enter university this October to study degrees in French, Spanish and German will be interesting to track, as will how many GCSE students move onto A Level in those languages. How many of all those then train to teach MFL in our schools is a crunch figure.

The reality underpinning these 2018 A and GCSE statistics is that the studying of modern foreign languages is in terminal decline, certainly in most state schools. I have predicted previously that they will go the way of Latin and Greek within twenty years, remaining the province of grammar and private schools.

For at least thirty years dating back to the seminal reforms of 1988, governments, Ministers, the DfE, curriculum planners and the profession itself have been confused about the place of MFL in primary and secondary schools. Just turn the archive pages of the various national curriculum bodies. And it is not a surprising confusion.

If you are English, which second language should you learn? Experts at different times and with different fashions have asserted Spanish, Russian, Arabic, German, French, Mandarin. Contrast if you are Swedish, Spanish, Dutch or Italian – thefirst foreign language you must learn from your primary days is English. No argument.

There are now many more people globally speaking English as an additional language than as a native tongue. The British Council estimates that more than two billion speak English and see it as the key to advancement. As people move up the ladder of prestige, and interact with English speakers everywhere, they adopt the internationally comprehensible language of today’s global business, scientific, cultural and media exchanges.

No need for Esperanto. The Tower of Babel is tumbling. English has become theglobal language. And, if they did but know it, native speakers of English have a glorious inheritance – and maybe therein lies the reason they believe there is no imperative to learn another language.

Questions: Is ‘shrug and fudge’ to be our school system’s continuing response to the MFL decline? Is there a realistic alternative out there?

Second: English

The second arresting message of the 2018 GCSE results lies with the home language of the nation. This year’s total cohort of sixteen year olds taking GCSEs numbers around 500,000. Of those, 70% achieved a grade 4 (‘standard pass’) or above in English Language. And 53% achieved a grade 5 or above, what the DfE calls a ‘strong pass’.

Viewed through a different lens, this means that more than 150,000 sixteen year olds –after twelve years of compulsory schooling – did not achieve a socially and economically worthwhile ‘pass’ grade in the home language of their country. (The picture for mathematics broadly mirrors that of English.)

In 1963 John Newsom and his colleagues presented to the government of the time a beautifully crafted, 300-page report titled ‘Half Our Future’. It painted a picture of success and positive self-esteem for fifty per cent of the nation’s fifteen year olds, while the other half languished with an unsuitable school curriculum and poor or no qualifications.

What have we been doing for five decades with our curriculum and examination system to leave so many of the country’s young people still languishing in 2018?

Must so many be written off in press parlance as ‘exam failures’ in the English language (and mathematics) which is their passport to future education and employment? And why is it that children from poorer backgrounds continue, year on year, to be disproportionately represented in these lower GCSE grade bands?

Questions: Is the nation content with this level of failure after twelve years of education? If not, what’s to be done differently?

Roy Blatchford CBE is the founder of www.blinks.education. His latest book ‘Success is a Journey is published by John Catt Educational.

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