Friday, August 21, 2015

The Sorry State of Languages at GCSE

Here in the UK, yesterday marked the day that children in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland received their GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) grades. The results for the Standard Grades, the equivalent in Scotland, were published earlier in the month.

For those not familiar with the UK education system, the GCSEs are the qualifications generally taken by students over their final two years of compulsory education (between 14 and 16 years old). This is the time of year when regardless of the results, people will complain.

If the trend is that grades are getting worse, then it is assumed that kids today are not as smart as those who studied before them. If the results are better, then the exams must be getting easier. I don't subscribe to either of those opinions because it's almost impossible to standardise the exams each year and the percentages for each grade given are fairly arbitrary.

Over a decade has passed since foreign languages were removed as compulsory subjects at GCSE, and the trends for foreign language education in the UK are not looking good. It seems every year the number of students taking a foreign language at GCSE decreases, and this year is no exception.

Declining Numbers

Perhaps one day all of these new Portuguese students
will be able to understand a performance at the
Municipal Theatre of São Paulo in Brazil!
In 2013, around 332,000 students were taking foreign language GCSEs. This figure dropped in 2014 to 321,000 students. This year it dropped yet again by an even greater amount to just over 300,000 students. It goes without saying that as a language lover, this doesn't feel great.

Those who do choose to study a modern foreign language at GCSE are also moving away from languages traditionally taught in the UK, such as French and German. Spanish has dipped in popularity this year, but this does follow nearly a decade of increasing popularity. Mandarin is doing well, with the number of students studying the subject increasing by nearly a fifth. More students have also been choosing to study Portuguese, Polish, and Arabic.

Some figures have suggested that foreign languages are being squeezed out by what I would call "modern" subjects, such as ICT (information and communications technology) and computing. It's hardly surprising that students are opting for these subjects given the world we live in and the increasing use of computers.

However, I don't think these two types of subjects are in competition. In fact, I believe the spread of telecommunications is the reason that languages are more important than ever. As the world becomes more and more connected, we've seen a rise in the demand for both communication technologies and foreign language abilities; it's just that the latter seems to have gone unnoticed by a number of students taking their GCSEs.

Easy "A"s (or "A*"s)

There are also stories going around that an increased number of migrants are taking the foreign language GCSE of their mother tongue. There have been suggestions that students are being encouraged to do this to either boost their school's performance or their own. While I suppose this isn't really in the "spirit" of taking a foreign language qualification, it would balance out having to take a number of other GCSEs in your second language.

The beautiful countryside and mountains of Crete, Greece.
This trend has also been said to be the reason for the increase in some of the less-common languages, such as Polish, Urdu, Turkish, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Farsi, Modern Greek, and Modern Hebrew.

The Reaction

Obviously, few are calling any of this a good thing. Negative adjectives are being thrown around as they seem to be every year. The UK is miles behind so many countries across Europe and the world in terms of foreign language education, and it's not going to close the gap if things continue as they are.

I find this all pretty abhorrent because it's certainly not caused by the teachers who are constantly given more bureaucratic hoops to jump through, more work to do, less pay, and yet still attempt to impart their knowledge upon the teenagers of this country.

What I find even worse is that although several groups with a bigger voice than me have spoken out about these disappointing trends, little seems to be changing.

What are your thoughts on the decline of foreign languages at GCSE? Any ideas on how to improve the matter? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!