Time to make languages compulsory at GCSE

The chair of the Independent Schools’ Modern Languages Association, Nick Mair, has stated that independent schools are suffering from a decline in language learning that is ‘more severe’ than that in the state sector (TES, 29.04.15). The data Mr Mair quotes are no doubt correct, but they must be viewed in the wider context. A third of A Level language entries still come from the independent sector despite the fact that it educates just 7% of all pupils, and an analysis of DfE figures shows that girls in GSA schools are twice as likely as girls in all UK schools to take French or Spanish at A level.
My own experience – and those of many other independent schools I have spoken to – is contrary to that stated by Mr Mail. At my own school take up of A Level languages is holding steady. In fact, we have had roughly the same proportion of sixth formers studying languages for the last 15 years and there is currently no sign of this changing. In German this year we have seen a significant increase in the number of candidates.

What makes us different? How do we buck the trend? At my school, we insist that every pupil takes at least one language at GCSE and in Years 7-9 we facilitate study of three modern foreign languages for up to three years for pupils who are eager to study them and/or have linguistic ability.

There is certainly a perception that languages are ‘difficult’, that they are graded harshly in public examinations and so on and so forth. This perception can put students off but it is up to schools and teachers to combat this and I have found that one very effective method is simply to make GCSE in a language compulsory. Once you get students in the classroom, with strong, effective language teachers, and modern teaching methods and resources, the enjoyment and benefits of learning a language become apparent.

It is essential that students understand that, in a global job market, you cannot hope to be a high flyer with only one language. We need a two-pronged approach. First, include languages in the promotion of essential rigorous subjects for a robust career – STEAM rather than STEM – and, please, let’s see the same level of engagement with education from employers of language graduates as we’re currently seeing from employers of science graduates. And second, let’s go a step further than including languages in the EBacc league table. Let’s send a strong message about the value of languages by making modern foreign languages compulsory at GCSE. It’s important if we’re going to crack this and it’s something all independent schools can choose to do.


Alice Phillips, Headmistress, St Catherine’s Bramley

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