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“Scholarships for linguists will only make languages more for the elite”

Imogen Arkwright.jpg

Imogen Arkwright

There is undeniably a crisis in modern foreign languages in our state schools.

In England over the past 15 years, entries for language GCSEs have dropped by 48 per cent, and there has been a similar decline at A-level, leading to a 12 per cent fall in the numbers going on to study languages at university.

However, we don’t see the same crisis in privates schools, where pupils are more likely to continue studying foreign languages beyond key stage 3.

A blog from a former private and state school pupil published on this website put this disparity down in part to the superior resources to support language learning on offer at private schools, such as well-stocked libraries, access to foreign language assistants and trips abroad.

To be fair to him, he does say this is a short-term solution which could have detrimental effects on the state sector.

Yet my argument is that this disparity is merely an example of the myriad of ways in which the greater funding of private education (on average three times that spent on state a school pupil’s education) promotes higher pupil attainment across all subjects.

I firmly believe that the problem cannot be solved by awarding scholarships so talented linguists can attend private schools, as suggested by the author, a practice which could in fact exacerbate the current crisis in the state sector.

I firmly believe that the problem cannot be solved by awarding scholarships to talented linguists in private schools

The decline of uptake in modern foreign languages (MFL) at GCSE and A-level across the country is partly a result of problems endemic to the state system.

Reduced budgets and increased pressure to perform in league tables mean that schools leaders often focus disproportionately on English, maths and science to the detriment of non-core subjects, which has lead to the scaling down of many MFL departments in recent years.

League table pressure also forces state school teachers to focus on what pupils will need to pass exams – in the case of MFL, grammatical understanding and memorisation of vocabulary.

As a result, there is less scope for incorporating elements of language learning that pupils may well find more engaging, such as cultural understanding.

Furthermore the reformed GCSE has heightened the perception that languages are too difficult. Language exams are typically marked half a grade more severely than other EBacc subjects and there is evidence that Ofqual’s recent attempt to address this imbalance is insufficient.

It is inevitable that children will be put off subjects if they think they are not going to do well in them.

Sadly in my own experience, teachers of others subjects can often reinforce this perception, actively deterring middle and lower-attaining pupils from choosing languages.

In private schools, where pupil attainment is much higher across the board, students are less likely to be put off “difficult” subjects.

It is worth noting that I have only ever taught MFL in London, where more pupils take a language GCSE than in other parts of the country. A large proportion of my students already speak another language besides English and, therefore, generally see the relevance of learning foreign languages.

It would be fair to imagine that the lack of contact for some state school children with other cultures, often in contrast to private school pupils, who will have far more opportunities to travel abroad, is undoubtedly a significant factor in the decline in popularity of languages outside of diverse cities.

There is already evidence to suggest that this is being exacerbated by Brexit. 

So why not support the awarding of scholarships to private schools for promising linguists?

The lack of contact for some state school children with other cultures is undoubtedly a factor in the decline of languages outside diverse cities

Because such practices will only serve to reinforce the perception that language learning is for the academic and economic elite. It will also exacerbate the problems already experienced by state school MFL departments, contributing to the further decline of languages over time.

Learning languages affords intellectual and economic benefits to individuals that should not be the preserve of the view but the right of the many.

Moreover if we consider the national picture we see that the negative consequences of the UK’s lack of language skills for our economic competitiveness, and thus for GDP and employment.

Therefore, what we really need is a broad base of competent language users, something that will never be achieved by channeling a few cherry-picked talented linguists through the private system.

Furthermore, the siphoning off of pupils who would take GCSEs or A-levels in MFL from the state school sector will lead to greater decline of MFL departments.

Many teachers won’t want to work in schools where they have no prospect of teaching A-level and reduced uptake at GCSE could lead to some schools abandoning the teaching of languages altogether.

Then, what could be done to address the disparity of uptake and attainment in languages between state and private schools?

The fact that GCSEs in MFL are more harshly marked needs to be addressed. 

But to achieve a truly radical transformation in language teaching, we must address the issues of high-stakes testing and the pressure to perform well in league tables, which force state school teachers to focus on narrow aspects of language learning.

Then there’s the fundamental unfairness of private school system, which sees pupil to teacher ratios that are half that of the state sector and far greater resources made available to private school pupils.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that private-school pupils attain higher than their state-school counterparts both in MFL and across the board.

Imogen Arkwright is a Spanish specialist who teaches modern foreign languages at a state school in central London.



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