Rebecca Ratcliffe in The Guardian, August 15, 2013:
Drop in number of A-level students studying foreign languages
Exam boards to launch inquiry as students shun French and German for sciences and economics
Spanish and French dictionaries
Entries to French A-levels fell by almost 10%, although Spanish bucked the trend, with a 4% increase. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
A major inquiry is under way after the number of teenagers taking traditional modern foreign languages at A-level fell to its lowest level for more than a decade.
Examination results released on Thursday show students are shunning French and German for the sciences and economics, triggering concern from the three main exam boards.
Entries to German were down 11.13% compared with last year, while French fell by 9.9%. Spanish was the only language to buck the trend, with a 4.08% increase.
Andrew Hall, chief executive of AQA, one of the biggest exam boards, said the boards would research why languages were so unpopular – and why comparatively few A-level language students achieve the top grades.
Some 6.9% of students sitting French, German and Spanish achieved an A* compared with 8.4% of those sitting physics, chemistry and biology.
“When we saw that languages were down again, we sat down and said we need to move this away from anecdote to evidence to find out what’s happening here,” Hall said. “We can’t sort how languages are taught in schools. What we can do is provide information to others to find out how the education system can be improved. We hope that teachers will get involved and we’re keen to talk to government about our findings.”
He questioned why the proportion of language entries getting A* was so small. “Is there something in the design of the qualification? We don’t believe so, but researching and challenging ourselves is important.”
Ofqual announced last week that it would investigate variations in the number of top grades awarded to sixth formers, citing French, German and Spanish as examples.
Professor Michael Kelly, head of languages at Southampton University and director of the Routes into Languages programme, said the slump in entries was partly a knock-on effect caused by a drop in GCSE entries for languages, but added: “There is a worry about language A-levels being unpredictable and being marked too harshly.
“Teachers find it very hard to estimate what a student will get in their exams, and there’s a danger that these students – especially high achievers – are being rerouted into subjects where they’re likely to do much better.”
Kelly also put the decline in French and German down to a growing interest in a broader range of subjects including Spanish, Russian and Arabic.
The number of students sitting economics exams this summer shot up by 7.45%, while chemistry, further mathematics and physics also experienced a boost in entries of more than three percentage points.
Lesley Davies, director of quality and standards at the Pearson exam board, said teenagers had responded to the need for more scientists and mathematicians.
“Eighteen-year-olds today were 11 at the time of the economic downturn, they’ve lived through all the issues that we’ve faced in the UK, and globally, over recent years. Young people have answered the rallying call of universities and employers and have made choices that will help their future careers.”
Boys fuelled an increase in the number of students studying the sciences, which accounted for 17.8% of all subjects taken this year, compared with 17.0% in 2012.
In physics, boys made up 79.3% of entries – an increase of 3.8% this year. Entries for girls taking physics fell by 0.2%.
Boys’ entries for English A-level fell by 2.3%, while entries from girls for the subject rose by 0.6%.
Commenting on the gender gap, Hall said: “Clearly there are very strong differences in A-level trends which existed over time, but we’ve noticed a widening of the gap this year – why, we don’t know, but the supply of teachers will be very important in determining this in the future.
“It’s about improving the information and guidance that’s being given to people at 16, which is a very early age to be making these decisions.”
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said teachers were “very aware” of the need to break gender stereotypes.
“We’ve seen very good examples of female engineers who go and talk to young people and explain that physics isn’t just a boy’s subject.”
Other subjects suffering a slump in interest were physical education (-14.53%), design and technology (-8.54%) and drama (8.42%).
Pressure on school budgets means fewer students are sitting extra qualifications such as critical thinking (-11.37%) and general studies (-11.24%), said Davies.
“We mustn’t forget the environment we’re in – resources are tightening and where as before students might have done four or five A-levels, now those extra classes are being dropped.”