A-levels: Probe into languages teaching as pupil numbers continue to fall


Education Editor

Two major investigations have been launched into the state of modern foreign languages in the wake of yet another slump in the number of candidates taking the subject at A-level.

Figures show a 9.9 per cent slump in the take-up of French to 11,272 candidates and 11.1 per cent fall in German to 4, 242 - only partially offset by a 4.1 per cent rises in Spanish entries to 7,351.

The worrying decline, which has been going on for years, comes despite the subject being included in Education Secretary Michael Gove’s new English Baccalaureate measure for exam league tables.

Both the exam boards and Ofqual, the exams regulator, are now mounting their own investigations into subject - with the exam boards taking an overall look at the state of the subject while Ofqual is focussing on whether it is harder to get a top grade pass in the subject - a factor headteachers say could be a key reason for the decline in take-up.

Andrew Hall, head of the AQA exam board - the country’s biggest exam board, said: “Languages remain a problem - entry levels are low despite a rise in the take-up of Spanish, which is not surprising given how widely it is spoken around the world.

He said there had been “much comment” over the decline in languages, adding: “We’ve reached the point where enough is enough - let’s actually use our expertise.

“We’ve stood at several events and said we’re concerned about languages.  So what we want to do is use all the information we’ve got to look at the type of students that are entering, what is their prior background, are we getting a different cohort mix, look at what the achievements are, look at the awarding and the grading between AS-level and the A2 (full A-level), look at their performance at GCSE.”

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board, added: “There has been a big push from employers to encourage students to do the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).  Are they really saying that, though,  if you haven’t got a language we’re not going to employ you?”

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed the Ofqual investigation, saying: “There are a relatively low level of top grade passes and we must make sure that people aren’t deterred from taking them because they are seen as harder.”

However, Mr Hall disputed the theory they were harder. “This year the number of students who got an A* in French, Spanish and German was 6.9 per cent and 8.4 per cent in sciences.  But then look at what happens with the grades A* and A - 38.2 per cent get one of the top two grades in languages then only 30.7 per cent in sciences.”

Professor Alan Smithers, head of the Centre for Education and Employment at Buckingham University, added: “I think Brits have a kind of arrogance and assume everybody is going to speak English.  It seems to be embedded in our psyche and it does us no good at all.”

Take-up of languages has been in free-fall at both GCSE and A-level in the past decade since the subject was removed from the compulsory list of studies for 14 to 16-year-olds.

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