What's happening in languages...

30 June 2009

Uptake of GCSE modern foreign languages among high attaining pupils* in the UK has fallen below the levels of uptake prior to the introduction of the National Curriculum, a new report out today indicates.

Although it is common knowledge that there has been a rapid decline in the number of pupils taking modern foreign languages since it became an optional subject at Key Stage 4 in 2004 – it is surprising that there has been a fall in the uptake among high attainers given the historical pattern of MFL uptake.

In 1984, before the National Curriculum was introduced, 94 per cent of pupils in the highest achievement group studied at least one modern foreign language at GCSE. According to research carried out by Cambridge Assessment this percentage dropped to 80 percent in 2000 and an all time low of only 75 per cent in 2008.

Senior Research Officer, Carmen L. Vidal Rodeiro, at Cambridge Assessment, said: "Such a big drop in the uptake of languages by high attainers was a surprise but not totally unforeseen. If students are not exposed to and have no prior knowledge of languages at KS3, how can we expect them to make an informed choice at GCSE?"

Also commenting on the research, Cambridge Assessment spokesman, Bene't Steinberg, said: "You wouldn't buy an ice cream maker if you'd never tried ice cream".

Despite the decline in the uptake of languages across all attainment levels and school types Cambridge Assessment’s research shows the popularity of Spanish continues to grow and it is set to overtake German as the second most commonly taught language after French.

Languages which have not seen a decline include Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Gujarati, Panjabi, Turkish, Polish, Portuguese and Urdu. But, not surprisingly, the majority of students who enter for one of the ‘world’ languages do so as native speakers. The clearest examples are Bengali and Turkish, where 95 per cent and 80 per cent of the entry, respectively, have it as their first language.

However, the good news for modern foreign languages is that by 2010 all KS2 pupils will be entitled to study a foreign language under the National Languages Strategy. Initiatives such as Asset Languages** – developed by Cambridge Assessment through its UK exam board OCR – is designed to reward language skills for learners of all ages and abilities, from primary to adulthood, by measuring them against the DCSF Languages Ladder*** of proficiency.

Earlier this year, every primary school in the country received a taster pack of support material developed by Asset Languages together with CILT, the National Centre for Languages. The support material, ‘Making and Marking Progress’, enables teachers to identify, plan for and record the progression of their young pupils learning a language, against the graded DCSF Languages Ladder.

The taster pack, designed for teachers of children in their third term of learning a language, is based on the QCA Scheme of Work for French in KS2. French is currently the most commonly taught language in primary schools.

Funded by the DCSF, further guidance for teachers will be rolled out over the next two years to fit around any scheme of work and relate to every term of KS2. This will also contain examples for pupils learning French, Spanish and German.

*To briefly describe the uptake of modern foreign languages by attainment a measure of the students’ performance was computed. By assigning marks to the GCSE grades (A*=8, A=7, B=6, C-5, D=4, E=3, F=2, G=1, U=0) it is possible to arrive to a total GCSE score for each student. A mean GCSE indicator can be calculated by dividing the total score by the number of subjects attempted. If a subject had been attempted twice, the highest grade was considered. The distribution of the mean GCSE indicator was obtained and used to divide the students into three attainment groups: low, medium and high.

**Asset Languages awarded its 100,000th qualification in April 2008. In 2007/8, OCR received nearly double the number of entries for the qualification compared to the year before.

*** The Languages Ladder is a national recognition scheme launched as part of the government’s National Languages Strategy.

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