UK: 'Free fall' fears as pupils abandon languages
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sat Aug 26 13:54:54 UTC 2006
'Free fall' fears as pupils abandon languages
Decline in French, German entries leads to review call Situation beyond
point of no return, says NUT leader
Rebecca Smithers and Ben Whitford
Friday August 25, 2006
Teachers unions and business leaders yesterday expressed fears about the
"free fall" in the number of pupils taking modern languages at GCSE,
claiming the situation was "beyond the point of no return." A further
sharp decline in entries for French and German prompted calls for a review
of government policy, which controversially made modern languages optional
in 2004. The number of students taking German this year fell 14.2% to
90,310 from last year, dropping below 100,000 for the first time in many
Entries in French fell by 13.2% to 236,189 - a drop of more than 80,000
since 2004, when the policy came into force. The figures confirm warnings
that entries in languages - perceived as more difficult than "soft"
subjects such as media studies - would plummet once they became optional.
Between 2004 and 2005 the number of students who took French GCSE fell by
14.5% to 272,140, and for German by 13.7% to 105,288. Interest in Spanish
has been more sustained, although entries fell this year by 0.5% to just
62,143. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and
College Leaders, said: "Entries are in free fall. Schools are now shedding
modern foreign language teachers, and I fear we have passed the point of
no return for languages in secondary schools." Fewer youngsters taking
languages would also reduce the pool of graduates and potential teachers.
Dr Dunford rejected reinstating languages as a compulsory subject,
insisting that schools needed to find more imaginative ways of teaching
languages. Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of
Teachers, called for the government to make foreign languages compulsory.
"The government must conduct a serious review of its stance ... and
examine how it should be promoting these subjects rather than presiding
over their decline." He also called for a review of the "overloaded"
primary curriculum to find space to teach languages. "Starting early is
Hillary Sergeant, a consultant with the National Association of Head
Teachers, called for the government to launch a campaign to put languages
back on the GCSE curriculum. "There needs to be an urgent regeneration of
language learning and teaching across the country." Business leaders
warned that the dwindling interest risked leaving pupils unable to compete
in the global economy. Ian Smith, head of Oracle UK, said: "We've been
incredibly fortunate until now because English has been the natural
language of business, but the inability to build relationships with
customers by having a choice of languages is going to become more and more
of a problem."
Susan Anderson, director of human resources policy at the CBI, said pupils
needed rigorous training in business languages such as Russian, Spanish
and Chinese to prepare them for the modern marketplace. "There's a
difference between a bit of holiday French and what's needed in today's
global economy," she said. Ellie Johnson Searle, director of the Joint
Council for Qualifications, said that it appeared less able students were
dropping languages: "With stronger students left studying modern foreign
languages there is a corresponding marked increase in performance."
The education secretary, Alan Johnson, conceded that the drop in
popularity for languages was disappointing. But he added: "The A*-C pass
rate for languages has risen by 3.8 percentage points and those taking
languages are flourishing. French continues to be in the top 10 most
popular subjects. "We have taken a sensible approach to what will make
language learning thrive. It is not about forcing young people to study a
language - it is about starting in primary schools, finding new and
exciting ways of teaching languages and better supporting those who show
an aptitude." The Department for Education said ministers are investing an
extra 115m. The measures include giving all seven to 11-year-olds an
entitlement to learn at least one foreign language by 2010.
FAQ: Times of change
Why did the situation get so bad?
Two years ago, the government launched a major overhaul of language
education in schools - and made modern languages an optional part of the
GCSE curriculum. Pupils suddenly no longer had to take languages at GCSE
unless they wanted to - and many didn't. The number taking language
Why were languages made optional in the first place?
The government said the move would give schools more flexibility, and
allow the focus to shift to teaching languages more effectively to younger
children. But the writing has been on the wall: successive surveys have
predicted that a large proportion of youngsters would drop languages -
perceived as hard - in favour of softer subjects such as drama and media
What's being done to fix things?
The Department for Education is investing an extra £115m to improve
language teaching in schools over the next three years. All seven to
11-year-olds will be allowed to study at least one foreign language in
primary school by 2010. It also plans to train 6,000 new primary school
teachers as language specialists.
What about children who are already at secondary school?
Languages look set to remain an optional part of the GCSE curriculum.
Is this the end for language GCSEs?
Not necessarily. Welsh and Irish both bucked the trend, with small
increases in the number of pupils sitting exams. Spanish is holding its
own and, while entry numbers are falling fast, French remains in the top
10 most-studied subjects at GCSE - for now.
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