Principal’s blog – the foreign languages challenge

Uptake of foreign languages in UK secondary schools is at its lowest level in almost 20 years.

I want to share a concern I have as a linguist. Recent news tells us that foreign language learning at secondary schools is at its lowest level since the year 2000.

According to the analysis, French and German have fallen the most in UK schools. Drops of 30% to 50% have been seen since 2013. A separate secondary school survey shows that a third have dropped at least one language from GCSE options.

Over half of all the mainstream secondary schools in the UK (2,048) responded to a survey, and most of these said that languages are seen as a difficult subject, meaning that fewer students are studying them.

Business organisations have expressed concern at the lack of language skills in the UK. Matthew Fell, chief UK policy director for the CBI, said: “Employer demand for French, German and Spanish skills has significantly increased over the last few years. The decline in language learning in schools must be reversed, or else the UK will be less competitive globally and young people less prepared for the modern world.”

“As well as speaking a foreign language, increasing young people’s cultural awareness and their ability to work with people from around the world is just as important.”

The British Council, which specialises in international cultural relations, warned that if the UK is to remain globally competitive in the wake of Brexit it needs more young people to be learning languages. Recent analysis of university applications shows that as of June last year, there were 15,140 applications from UK applicants to study European languages courses at university, down from 19,620 at the same point in 2012 – a drop of 22.8 per cent.

Vicky Gough, schools adviser at the British Council, said: “As the UK comes to reposition itself on the world stage, language skills matter now more than ever. And with the country already facing a languages shortfall, we must do everything we can to encourage more people to acquire these vital skills.”

“The reality is that speaking another language not only boosts job prospects but also enables you to connect with another culture.”

“If the UK is to remain internationally competitive – particularly as we prepare to leave the EU – we need far more young people, not fewer, to be learning languages in schools and universities. It’s not enough to rely on English alone.”

There are so many benefits to learning a foreign language, not least the study skills that are involved, such as sound – spelling recognition, listening skills, memory development, communication skills, grammatical understanding and the insight provided into the way our own language works. More importantly perhaps, it is crucial that we develop outward-facing young people to enable them to embrace different cultures and become tolerant, accepting citizens of the future in an increasingly uncertain world.

Ms Heath
Acting principal

National Church of England Academy