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June 2017

England’s ‘language learning gap’ widens

The language learning gap between the North and South of England is widening, according to a new report from the British Council.

The Language Trends Survey 2017 shows that in summer 2016, 65 per cent of pupils in Inner London took a foreign language up to GCSE level (exams taken by 15 and 16 year-olds), compared to just 43 per cent in the North East.

Participation rates over the last three years indicate that the capital city is the only part of the country where the percentage of pupils taking languages to GCSE is currently increasing.

The increase in London has been put down to general improvements in its education system and the global outlook of the city making the rationale for language learning more clear.

Access to language learning differs along socio-economic lines, too. Pupils in schools in more deprived areas are less likely to sit a language GCSE or to be given the chance to study more than one foreign language. These pupils are also more likely to be allowed to drop languages after only two years or even to be withdrawn from language lessons altogether.

The survey also found that top of teachers’ concerns are the increasingly difficult conditions for school exchanges.

The lack of opportunities to talk with native speakers and experience other cultures first hand – such as through school exchanges or hosting language assistants in the classroom – is also seen as a problem.

There is some concern that this may be made worse by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

Lead researcher Teresa Tinsley said, ‘The report contains important messages for us all about the current place of language learning in our schools. It’s absolutely vital that more people recognise that the ability to speak another language can be as important for a child’s future as maths or science, and that it makes a significant contribution to overall literacy and knowledge about the world.’

According to Tinsley, maths and English are prioritised in primary schools, and science and maths subjects are promoted heavily in secondary schools ‘as a passport to good degrees and careers.’

She argues that language learning should be promoted with the same degree of importance.

Vicky Gough, schools adviser at the British Council, said: ‘Learning a language should not come down to geographical location or background, it should be for everyone. And as the UK comes to reposition itself on the world stage, it needs to be.’

The Language Trends Survey 2016/17 is the latest in a series of annual research exercises, charting the health of language teaching and learning in schools in England.

The research is based on an online survey completed by teachers in over 700 state secondary schools, over 720 state primary schools and over 140 independent secondary schools across the country.

To download the survey, do to: www.britishcouncil.org/education/schools 

Pic courtesy: Brad Barth

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