Welsh Concerned About Foreign Language Decline Among Students

Article by Claire Miller from walesonline.co.uk, April 2, 2013:

The number of pupils taking foreign language GCSEs has fallen drastically, prompting fears the lack of language skills could damage Wales’ economic prospects.

The number of entries has fallen from 10,706 in 2009 to 7,872 in 2012, a drop of more than a quarter.

While overall pupil numbers in Wales are also shrinking, averaging out the figures to an estimate of the percentage of pupils being entered suggests a fall from 29% to 22% in four years.

Our analysis of the data also suggests the percentage of pupils taking foreign languages in Blaenau Gwent could have dropped as low as 12%. Even the highest proportions of students taking foreign languages, in areas such as the Vale of Glamorgan, may only be equivalent to a third of pupils.

Angela Burns AM, Shadow Minister for Education, described the drop as alarming.

She said: “The failure to teach our children modern languages risks isolating Wales in the future and holding back our links with the global economy.

“How can we expect to expand trade links with emerging powers and secure lucrative contracts for Welsh businesses with such an inward-looking education system, which fails to recognise the value of foreign languages?

“With 40% of students in England studying at least one foreign language at GCSE compared to just 22% in Wales, Welsh students risk losing out to their English counterparts in the job market.

She said the Welsh Conservatives had called for a major expansion in foreign language learning including in primary school.

Dr Philip Dixon, director of education union ATL Cymru, backed her view, saying the decline was cause for concern.

He said: “If we’re to build an economy in Wales that can contend with the best in the world, we need students with skills in languages. The government put forward various schemes in schools but we still don’t seem to have got to the bottom of the problem of why the number of students taking foreign languages is dropping.”

A report published by the CfBT Education Trust suggested anti-European sentiment is turning teenagers off modern foreign languages, as well as a belief that French and German were no longer useful in the global economy.

Report co-author Kathryn Board added: “I would say, from a perception point of view, that when you look at society in general in this country and you see that pupils are not motivated to learn languages, parents are not motivating their children to learn languages and generally, we’ve got a society that doesn’t recognise the value of languages, when you get a rhetoric in the media on a daily basis that feels anti-European, anti-Eurozone, one might assume, over time that it underlines an already unfavourable feeling about languages.”

Rex Phillips, NASUWT Wales organiser, said it was difficult to tell from the figures whether they were a result of pupil disinterest or a lack of course provision.

He said: “We certainly find that some of our members who teach foreign languages find they’re being taken off the curriculum. I think that’s a direct result of the squeeze that there is on school budgets.

“There was a time when schools could allow the course to run regardless of the number that wanted to participate in the course.

“We’ve always argued that schools should be funded on the needs of the curriculum rather than the number of pupils and that’s what goes to the heart of this.”

The figures on GCSE entries did include some good news for science subjects, with a steady rise in the numbers of pupils taking biology, chemistry and physics as separate subjects rather than as a combined exam.

Dr Dixon said the increase was “pleasing”, adding the Welsh Government should learn from the rise and look for things that could be applied to encouraging students to take foreign languages.

A Welsh Government spokeswoman welcomed the rise in the numbers taking individual science subjects at GCSE, adding the qualifications are the foundations of a vibrant economy.

She said: “The fall in the number of young people taking Modern Foreign Languages at GCSE is not unique to Wales. Entries have fallen across the UK.

“Learning a Modern Foreign Language (MFL) supports pupils’ literacy and oracy in the long term.”

She said the Welsh Government’s action plan, Making Languages Count, plans to promote and improve the take-up of MFL in schools, with particular focus on provision in secondary schools.

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