Thursday, 22 March 2012

The good, the bad and the ugly

The latest Language Trends research has now been published by CfBT and was launched last night at the House of Lords. This valuable annual research contains mixed news for language learning in schools.

The 'good' is that more schools now have pupils learning a language in Year 10. In 2011/12, 51% of maintained schools have 50% or more pupils studying a language,  up from 36% in the previous school year. The research also reports that 60% of maintained schools in the middle quintile for attainment and 45% of those in the second-lowest quintile have 50% or more pupils studying a language in Year 10. This is up markedly from 23% and 19% respectively in the previous school year.

As CfBT reports, this is positive sign that the gap in uptake of languages between different school types and different pupil characteristics is beginning to close.

It appears that the introduction of the EBacc is having an impact on this increase in take-up. Interestingly, the report states that 46% of schools surveyed have not made changes in response to the introduction of the EBacc. Factors in this decision include a satisfactory level of uptake of languages, uncertainty around the value of the EBacc or a concern that the EBacc is contrary to an ethos of free subject choice. 

The 'bad' is a continued level of concern around the GCSE and A Level examinations. There is widespread criticism of controlled assessment, with schools reporting it as 'demotivating for students' and 'a test of pupils' ability to memorise'. There is also concern about an 'unstimulating' syllabus at GCSE level. Teachers are keen to move away from qualifications with a rote learning approach, and to a qualification that allows them to raise standards in language teaching and learning. Teachers also report that pupils are put off by 'the sudden increase in difficulty between GCSE and A Level', and by how difficult it is to obtain the highest marks in languages in comparison to other subjects.

This brings us to the ugly - the barriers to language teaching and learning. At Key Stage 4, performance tables now only allow for language learning via GCSE to count, preventing pupils from studying languages using more stimulating qualifications or even gaining a qualification in less widely taught languages.

Universities still value languages as an entry subject, yet teachers report  take-up post-16 is being threatened by inconsistent marking in comparison other subjects and the difficulty in obtaining an A* grade required by so many universities for entry.

The other barrier reported in the survey is curriculum time: time available for languages is the change most requested by teachers. They are concerned by the number of lessons and teaching hours available for languages, as it prevents pupils from making in-depth progress with their language learning due to the lack of practice time available.

The research shows there is positive news for languages, with take-up increasing at GCSE. But take-up post-16 is still vulnerable, and curriculum time and examination structures still pose a problem for teachers in English schools. Language Trends 2011 shows we still have a lot of work to do to raise awareness of these issues and campaign for greater support for the subject and its teaching in the National Curriculum Review.