Richard Garner in The Independent, August 22, 2013:
A major increase in the take-up of modern foreign languages – the first for more than a decade – is being heralded as the brightest spot on the horizon in this year’s GCSE results.
Figures showed French, Spanish and German had all registered an increase – French up 15.5 per cent to 177,000, Spanish up 25.8 per cent to 91,000 and German up 9.4 per cent to 63,000.
The take-up of minority languages also rose by 5.1 per cent with the most popular being Italian with 5,136, urdu with 4,519 and Polish 3,933. Others increasing in popularity include Arabic (3,607) and Chinese (3,042).
The increase – after languages have been in virtual free-fall since Labour decided they should no longer be compulsory for 14 to 16-year-olds a decade ago – is being put down to Education Secretary Michael Gove’s introduction of the English Baccalaureate ranking in exam leagues.
Whilst English, maths, science and the humanities – history or geography – had survived better in the face of the move away from traditional academic subjects in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, scores of language teachers were sacked from secondary schools as the take-up of the subject plummeted.
“This year’s upturn in languages will be welcomed across the education sector and beyond,” said Michael Turner, director at the Joint Council for Qualifications – the umbrella body representing exam boards. “Not since 2008 have there been this many entries.
“However, it remains to be seen if this is the start of a trend and if students continue to study a language at A-level.”
Last week’s A-level results revealed a depressingly familiar picture of a further decline in take-up – with a 9.9per cent fall in the take up of French and 11.1 per cent drop in German only minimally offset by a 4.1 per cent rise in Spanish.
The rise in numbers studying the subject led to a drop in the percentage of pupils gaining A* to C grades in the subject – with French down from 66.2 per cent to 63.9 per cent, German from 43.3 per cent to 42.1 per cent and Spanish from 66.8 per cent to 66.2 per cent. However, exam boards explained this by saying that the rise had attracted a broader range of candidates to study the exam.
Katja Hall, chief policy director at the CBI, said: “It’s good to see the big rise in language entrants but the accelerating drop-off at A-level shows there is a huge amount of ground to claw back since compulsory GCSEs were scrapped.
“It is better late than never to make languages mandatory at primary school (the will be compulsory for seven-year-olds) but it will be years before we can reap the rewards fully.”
Education Minister Elizabeth Truss said: “Today’s results show the EBacc has not just arrested the decline in the study of academic subjects at GCSE – it is reversing it.
“I am particularly delighted to see a languages revival – with an increase in the number of entries to French, German and Spanish GCSEs after years of decline.”
Kathryn James, director of policy at the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “The slight fall in top grades was to be anticipated given the wider ability range now taking these subjects.”