Study of Mandarin in British schools floundering


Richard Garner
Thursday 16 August 2012 16:58

The study of Mandarin in British schools appears to be floundering.

The number of pupils taking the subject at A-level has gone up by only 88 in the course of the year.

Heads and language experts said that many of the 3,425 candidates now sitting the subject were likely to be native speakers who happen to live in the UK.

Dr Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, who has just opened a Mandarin Centre at the school, urged exam boards to set separate papers for native speakers and those approaching the language for the first time - as happened in the International Baccalaureate - to encourage more UK candidates to come forward. He said: “My guess is the vast majority are native speakers.

“There are very gifted people struggling for a C grade whereas native speakers can cream off an A*.”

Dr Seldon, who is studying for a Mandarin at GCSE and admitted “finding it very difficult” added that languages were “drinking in the last chance saloon” as a subject area.

Today exam boards admitted there was a “crisis” in the teaching of languages as the take-up of mainstream languages showed a further dramatic slump after years of decline.

Today’s results showed that a 7.6 per cent drop in the take-up of German (24.3 per cent since 2007) and 5.2 per cent fall in French (13.6 per cent in five years). They were only marginally offset by a rise of two per cent in newer languages such as Mandarin and Polish.

The take-up of languages has been ebbing away ever since Labour’s decision to make the subject voluntary for 14 to 16 years eight years ago.

“Clearly, there is a crisis in modern foreign languages,” said Andrew Hall, chief executive of the Assessment and Qualification Alliance - the country’s biggest exam board.

“I am quite worried. We have reported a fall year after year after year.” There was a danger is of the subject (like the euro going into freefall.”

He added that the numbers taking the subject at AS level - which is taken by most youngsters at the end of the first year of the sixth-form -were also in decline, which meant next year’s A-level results day would reveal a worsening picture.

Exam bosses and headteachers were quick to blame business leaders and universities for failing to take action to stem the decline.

“We need the universities to say languages are important,” said Mark Dawe of the Oxford and Cambridge and Royal Society of Art exam board.

“Universities have made it pretty clear the subjects they like - and that STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) are a priority.

“I’m not sure the message has been so strong about languages and they should compensate for that.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said it was time for a national strategy to promote languages, adding: “From investigating the possibility of giving talented languasge teachers a golden hello to setting up advisory networks, we must begin to raise the status of modern foreign languages so that our school leavers can take full advantage of the creative and commercial opportunities the rest of the world has to offer.”

Ministers are pinning their hopes on their plans to make the subject compulsory from the age of seven in primary schools promoting a revivasl of the subject.

Also, they believe the inclusion of languages as one of the five subjects to qualify for the English Baccalaureate will also speed a revival. Early indications are that this is having some effect at GCSE level already.

Meanwhile, the figures released today showed that further mathematics (up 7.6 per cent) and the classics (Latin and Greek - up 7.5 per cent) were showing a revival.

Amongst the biggest fallers, though, was physical education - down 12.7 per cent to 16, 896 - a worrying sign as the Coalition Government seeks to build on the legacy of the 2012 Olympics.

Entries for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) - considered crucial for the future of the economy - rose, though, with naths up 3.8%, biology 1.7%, chemistry 2.4% and physics five per cent.

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