In 2004 Labour decided to make Languages an option subject. Sadly, this has partially resulted in its long-term decline.
The EBacc has arrested the decline in the study of academic subjects such as Languages at GCSE level, but this is just because head teachers and senior leaders in schools have forced a percentage of students to take a language due to the fact that schools are measured according to the number of students gaining an EBacc. On a positive note, there has been an uptake in Languages, but let’s not fool ourselves; no EBacc means no Languages students studying at GCSE level. The following are some of the reasons why.
Students in grammar and independent schools are more likely to take traditional subjects. These schools often have greater parental support than state schools, which leads to students producing work of a very high quality. I have experienced this first-hand in the six years I have worked as an examiner and moderator. As a result, students from state schools have to face some tough competition. It is a fact that the grammar and independent schools are getting the top grades.
Languages are 100% literacy-based, academic subjects. To a nation which has spent a fluctuating amount of time and effort in teaching grammar, this can be a shock. Unfortunately it also results in our pupils having to be taught basic English grammar rules by their foreign language teachers before they can be taught the language subject itself. I have to admit this situation has improved slightly in recent years, but it wasn’t very long ago my students were unable to give me examples of a verb or adjective in English, never mind how hard it was to make them understand verbal and adjectival agreements in Spanish or French. This mismatch in grammar teaching and knowledge has become a barrier to language learning.
Any good linguist will tell you how aware they always are of their lack of progress. Students often say: “We can’t find the right words to express ourselves”. It is a very discomforting feeling that all linguists experience several times during their language learning journey. Some are patient enough to persevere and eventually make further progress, which feels wonderful. Indeed, it is that feeling which will encourage them to take Languages and become a linguist of the future. On the other hand, those who give up easily or don’t trust professional judgement from their teachers will come to hate language learning and will opt for different subjects at GCSE level.
A huge part of language learning is based on students being able to listen to the language. I can very sadly confirm that, currently, disruptive behaviour in secondary schools makes listening a very challenging task to accomplish. In the last ten years or so, the number of disruptive students who get punished by schools has dropped to almost zero. Schools are not only judged on GCSE results, but also on how many exclusions they make, hence head teachers very rarely exclude students anymore. Instead, peers and teachers have to put up with the aforementioned disruptive students.
Controlled Assessment is strongly linked to GCSE targets, GCSE results and league tables, so teaching and learning a foreign language is no longer enjoyable but part of the production line in the fast food GCSE warehouse also known as secondary schools. Bad news spreads fast, so pupils soon get to hear “how boring GCSE Spanish and French are.”
SLT do not invest in MFL, and currently at KS3 most schools teach only 2 hours. At GCSE, 3 hours a week is the average allocation, whilst core subjects get 5 lessons. Languages targets are still as high as those in the core subjects, though. MFL teachers still have to deliver the same amount of content, but thinking time and steady pace has to go. The enjoyment and fun factor had through games, iPads, iPods and laptops can’t always be fitted into lessons, either, and time spent on the cultural aspect of the language is often put to one side due to time constraints. Milestone assessments, progress levels, current attainment grades, targets, data-collection deadlines and all the rest of it are now the priority.