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“My private school transformed my experience of modern languages”

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Lewis Wells

As a pupil who attended a state secondary school and then a private school sixth form, I have seen both sides of the private-state sector divide.

One difference in the provision I experienced in both sectors has worried me above anything else: the difference in modern languages provision.

In my view, most of the excellence in languages education seems to be predominantly afforded to our private schools.

This is of course because the divide in budgets, backgrounds of pupils and even expertise between the two sectors can be stark.

Although I made the most of my state languages experience, I know that state schools nationwide are unable to support keen languages pupils as much as they would like.

My real concern is for developing linguists who are losing opportunities to both demonstrate or even find their skills, further their enthusiasm and thus subsequently give up, so to speak, on their prospects in the subject and future university study.

One solution is to increase their admission into private schools on the basis of their “linguist” credentials.

Many state language departments are suffering. As teachers leave, budgets are cut and accountability measures bite, more pupils are being allowed to drop languages before year 9.

For both safeguarding and financial reasons, foreign exchanges and school trips are rarer.

Some departments may cease to exist with a real sense of purpose, particularly as a perception of “tough exams” and declining attainment outcomes drives lower subject uptake at GCSE and beyond.

Moreover, languages do not receive as much support nor enthusiasm as STEM subjects and this places the subject in greater danger. It’s a depressing scene.

At age 16, I had a choice between taking my A-Levels either at a maintained college many miles away or a private school much closer to home.

Opting for the latter, my experiences within a thriving languages department have opened my eyes to the divide in the country’s offering of the subject and have subsequently influenced my ideas on reform for the subject across both sectors.

For someone like me who was state-educated to GCSE level, entering a languages department with double the staff, access to British Council tutors, regular foreign excursions and a resourceful library was nothing short of a utopia.

But it’s very disappointing that private schools offering thriving language departments lack scholarships and bursarial support for the subject.

Scholarships for sport, art and music are appropriate since facilities and resources provide the artistic, athletic and musical development impossible for maintained schools.

Greater access to language departments for skilled state-schooled linguists could have a profound impact on whether those pupils opt for university-level study.

With Oxbridge acceptance rates highest among languages, could admitting gifted pupils from the state sector on language scholarships improve the intake for disadvantaged pupils matriculating at Russell Group universities?

As the first in my family to enter university, I could never have seen myself with the same positive view on languages, the opportunities available or entering a Russell Group university without the confidence generated by my private school languages education.

These schools can create many more success stories if they vastly increase their bursary schemes and scholarships to poorer students.

Yet currently, only one per cent of places in private schools are entirely without fees. This is a pretty poor outlook for a sector that’s now been claiming for decades to want to help socio-economically disadvantaged pupils.

Meanwhile, the prospect of bringing many of the resources, trips and language assistant support found in private schools into state schools is at present financially and structurally unsustainable – but this doesn’t mean the sector should not keep banging the drum for more funding, better languages support and overall solutions.

By offering state-schooled pupils the opportunity to take their exams in languages in a well-resourced private school, not only will this incrementally increase social mobility, it could even improve the performance of the department overall.

Of course, the drawback is that our taxpayer-funded state schools are losing bright pupils to the private school sector. Much more funding is needed to bridge the gap between the two sectors and keep more pupils like me in the state sector.

State schools are likely to stoically oblige and support their pupils with their admission into private schools, but losing gifted pupils is not their ultimate wish and will arguably demoralise senior leadership. So this remains an issue.

Meanwhile, ensuring the most skilled pupils find themselves in the best-resourced schools is an ambitious project. It would be highly regrettable for language departments in private schools to have their efforts confined to an existing half-dozen pupils.

The ultimate question is over applying this idea nationwide. Sixth form fees in private schools range between £10,000 and £85,000 for the total two years. Although many schools receive donations ample enough to support pupils, might the Department for Education or other institutions be in a position to generate places as well?

I am thinking of the Goethe Institute, British Council, the University Council of Modern Languages… could they help provide scholarships or partially funded spaces?

It is definitely worth considering. The risks from inaction are genuinely damaging. Languages departments cross-sector are closing and will continue to close.

Only by making radical changes that protect the subject uptake, and support excellent languages education, will there be any chance of reversing this trend.

Lewis is a first year undergraduate at the University of Nottingham reading German, Spanish and Russian and a student affiliate of the Chartered Institute of Linguists. 

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