Concern over drop in numbers taking languages

Photo: Chris Ison/PA Wire
Photo: Chris Ison/PA Wire
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The number of students taking languages at A-level has dropped for another year running, raising fears that the UK will fail to remain competitive on the world stage.

The amount of male and female students studying French has gone down from 11,272 last year to 10,433 this year - a drop of 7.4 per cent - while for German the number has decreased from 4,242 to 4,187, representing a 1.2 per cent fall.

Meanwhile, those taking Spanish A-level has dropped from 7,651 last year to 7,601, a 0.6 per cent decrease.

Last year the number of students choosing Spanish had actually increased compared with the previous one.

There were 9,007 entries for other modern foreign languages, down from 9,087 last year, representing a 0.8 per cent drop.

It emerged earlier this month that exam boards will have to change French, German and Spanish A-level tests after an investigation into falling student numbers and not enough top grades being awarded.

Exams regulator Ofqual launched a probe last year following another slump in the number of young people taking the language courses and concerns about the relatively low number getting the best marks.

Exam boards will have to make changes that come into effect in A-levels sat in the summer of 2015, but Ofqual said the precise nature of the changes was still under discussion.

Vicky Gough, schools adviser at the British Council, said the drop in students taking modern foreign languages was worrying.

She said: “While the percentage of foreign language A-levels is similar to last year, the fact is we’ve still hit another low - with a 7.4 per cent drop in the number of French exams. More than 10,000 fewer language exams were taken this year than at the end of the 90s.

“With such a low base, stability sadly isn’t good enough - the UK needs far more young people to learn languages to a high standard in order to stay competitive on the world stage, and to become the language teachers of the future. Understanding another language is key to understanding another culture - and that’s increasingly crucial for life and work.”

John Cridland, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said: “Europe remains our largest export market so to see yet another fall in the languages used on our very doorstep is a blow.

“It has been a worry to see foreign language study in our schools under such sustained pressure and it will be some time yet before we know whether making foreign language study compulsory for pupils at Key Stage 2 has made any difference.

“It is important that young people considering their future subject choices are made aware of just how useful studying a foreign language can be for their careers.”

The 2014 CBI/Pearson education and skills survey found that many businesses find knowledge of a foreign language can be beneficial to their business (41 per cent) and helpful in building relations with overseas contacts (28%).

The foreign languages rated as useful include: French 50 per cent; German 49 per cent; Spanish 44 per cent; Mandarin 31 per cent; Arabic 23 per cent; Polish 19 per cent; Russian 18 per cent; Cantonese 16 per cent; Japanese 15 per cent and Portuguese 11 per cent.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers union said he did not believe the take-up of students choosing modern foreign languages would improve without the encouragement of schemes such as the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network or STEMNET.