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Languages learning in ‘slow recovery’ following the pandemic


Languages learning in schools is recovering slowly from the pandemic, with the Government on course to miss its targets, according to a new report.

The Language Trends survey – from the British Council of more than 1,500 state primary, state secondary and private schools – finds that the Government is on track to meet all its targets for English Baccalaureate (EBacc), apart from languages.

The EBacc aims to make sure that pupils take English language, literature, maths, the sciences, a humanities subject and a modern foreign language at GCSE.

The Government plans for 75% of pupils to study the EBacc subject combination at GCSE by 2022, for award of qualifications in 2024, and for 90% to do so by 2025, for qualifications awarded in 2027.

For all other subjects, the Government is on course to meet the target with the exception of foreign languages.

The survey showed that four in five primary schools had been teaching languages for more than five years, representing a 2% increase on 2021 and a 5% increase on 2019, with pupils making progress in one foreign language in most of these schools.

But the data revealed significant variation in the amount of time primary pupils spent on languages, with some schools spending less than half an hour on teaching per week, whereas ideally pupils would be taught for at least one hour per week by a teacher with degree-level proficiency in the language.

The survey found that in practice, weekly language learning does not take place in one in four primary schools because of issues such as split teacher time between year groups, where Year 5 might have languages for half the year and Year 6 for the other half, staffing issues and extra-curricular activities.

French is the most commonly taught language at primary, and is significantly ahead of Spanish, although this trend is not mirrored at A-level.

The survey also showed a decline in trips abroad.

It found that the pandemic had resulted in a “significant reduction” in school trips and other international activities as part of language study, with the exception of private schools where opportunities were more widespread.

International activities include trips abroad, partnering with a school abroad, involvement in international projects or hosting a language assistant.

Previous Language Trends reports found that international opportunities for pupils had been decreasing since 2018.

The 2022 report found that almost 70% of primary schools surveyed said they had had no international engagement in the past year, while 45% of state secondary schools reporting the same thing.

At private schools, just 18% said they had had no international links, an increase from 7% in 2021.

The report found that Spanish was the most popular language to take at A-level for the third year running, with over 8,000 entries, and will overtake French as the most popular language at GCSE by 2026 if current trends continue.

German has declined slightly, while entries for other modern languages plummeted in 2020 when pupils learning languages at Saturday schools or community settings not awarded a teacher-assessed grade for their work during the pandemic.

While these languages show some signs of recovery, entry rates remain far below pre-pandemic levels.

Vicky Gough, British Council schools adviser, said: “Our survey highlights the impact that Covid-19 still has on the teaching and learning of languages and shows that the past couple of years have been extremely challenging for schools.

“It is vital that schools prioritise language learning and re-establish connections with national and international schools and universities. The benefits of having language skills and some knowledge of other cultures cannot be overstated, particularly as the UK renegotiates its place on the world stage.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The EBacc remains vital in giving all children the same chance to succeed in the core academic subjects, and we have already exceeded our 75 per cent uptake ambition across four of the five subject groups.

“We are reforming the modern foreign languages GCSEs to encourage more students to take up these important subjects, helping to broaden their horizons.

“We have also increased bursaries for languages to attract more talented teachers to the profession, invested £4.8 million in a pilot to boost quality and take-up, and are establishing a network of modern foreign language hubs from next year.”