Out of the more than 3,000 secondary schools in England, only around 160 are selective grammar schools. This includes seven schools in Gloucestershire, including Denmark Road High School in Gloucester where both my daughters are pupils.
Denmark Road is a very fine school. It was the Sunday Times Southwest State Secondary School of the Year in their 2020 Schools Guide; 50% of all A Level grades were at A*-A grades in 2020. It’s even one of the top 20 all-girls schools for cricket, according to The Cricketer’s Schools Guide 2021: I live more in hope than expectation.
Like all schools during the pandemic, the teachers have had to juggle online tuition with onsite provision to children of key workers. They’ve done this when the country has to suffer the worst Secretary of State for Education ever (my opinion, not theirs), the lamentable Gavin Williamson. Despite wildly inconsistent guidance and Williamson’s repeated U-turns, Denmark Road has continued to provide excellent teaching. Communication with parents is regular, clear and never complaining.
That means a lot of Zoom calls, including one recently to discuss A-Level choices from next September. My elder daughter wants to take German A-Level and as a dutiful parent I did some research. It turns out that, in the entire country, only around 2,800 pupils in the country study German to A-Level each year, a decline from more than 5,000 in the early years of the 21st Century.
Something similar is happening at degree level too. According to data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), acceptances to university modern language courses have fallen by 36% from 6,005 to 3,830 in the decade to 2020. UCAS explains this by saying that students are responding to “economic cues”: acceptances to computer science courses have risen by 47% in nine years – from around 20,000 in 2011 to 30,000 in 2020, and acceptances to engineering courses have increased by 21% over the same period.
There’s so much wrong with the phrase “economic cues” with respect to degree courses that it’s hard to know where to begin. Suffice to say, I’m glad that not responding to economic cues when I was leaving school allowed me to spend three years studying Aristotle and still left me the next 30 years or more to build a career that’s, well, had its rewards.
To give them their due, UCAS are worried about the situation with respect to languages. Clare Marchant, UCAS’ chief executive said:
“The decline in acceptances to languages could exacerbate the languages skills gap in the wake of Brexit, therefore it is important that action is taken to promote the benefits of languages across the education sector.”
She is right to talk about the whole education sector. To study languages at university, you’ve got to first study them at A-level. As the British Council’s latest excellent language trend report in 2019 noted, there are worrying signs of decline and growing socio-economic division in language teaching in schools. As lead researcher for Language Trends, Teresa Tinsley, puts it:
“Pupils from poorer backgrounds and those who are less academically inclined are much less likely than their peers to acquire any substantial language skills or access foreign cultures in any significant way.”
There’s a perception that languages are “hard subjects”, in which getting good exam results is difficult.
The Brexit effect
Then there’s the Brexit effect. 40% of teachers surveyed in the British Council report say that the implications of Brexit pose a major challenge to providing high-quality language teaching. Both parents and pupils look on languages less favourably than they used to, and the supply of language teachers is restricted: the report found the majority of secondary schools depend on EU citizens to help staff their language departments, home-grown language teachers are in short supply, and a quarter of independent schools and one third of state schools report difficulties recruiting language staff.
It’s not as if relations with other countries and cultures are being built through contact: half of all primary schools offer pupils no international activity at all, and only a quarter of state schools offer pupil exchanges abroad, compared to nearly half of independent schools. The ending of participation in Erasmus following the Brexit deal agreed in December will only increase isolation.
This contradicts the many claims from the government that it is building an outward looking trading nation. In their 2012 paper, “The language effect in international trade: A meta-analysis”, Egger and Lassmann found that, on average, having a common language increases trade flows by 44%.
Language isn’t just about talking to people without having to resort to Google Translate. It’s about gaining a cultural understanding, increasing trust and empathy, three of the key ingredients of doing business. That’s the “economic cue” the government should be taking. Instead, they are dividing society, creating an underclass of drones for whom contact with the outside World is discouraged.
So the government’s grade in Languages is a “FAIL”.