UK youngsters ‘miles behind’ European peers in foreign language learning

Fewer than half of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland take a GCSE foreign language Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Learning a foreign language should be compulsory for GCSE students, according to a report that warns the UK is falling behind its European neighbours in language ability.

Scrapping the subject at GCSE level – a decision made by Tony Blair’s Labour government – led to a severe drop-off in the numbers taking languages such as French and German, a new study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) says.

Fewer than half of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland now take a GCSE foreign language, it argues, compared to three in four in 2002.

The study also notes that the UK’s young people are “miles behind” their European peers in foreign languages, with just a third able to speak more than just their mother tongue.

And it warns that post-Brexit, language skills cannot be ignored, and the UK cannot rely on the assumption that the rest of the world speaks English.

The study says there has been a huge drop in demand for language learning in recent years.

“In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the scrapping of the compulsory foreign language GCSE in 2004 has had a detrimental effect on national uptake levels,” the paper says.

“This measure failed to anticipate the vast drop in uptake.

“Given fewer than half of pupils now take a GCSE foreign language, compared to 76% in 2002, we are far behind the rest of Europe, and changes in governmental attitudes and policy are pressing.”

The author calculates that at GCSE, entries for French have dropped by 63% since 2002, while German entries have fallen 67%.

There has been a rise in the numbers taking Spanish over this period, overtaking German in 2012, and last year there was an overall rise in the numbers taking modern foreign languages.

The report also says that entries for French and German A-level have been falling since the mid-1990s, and there has been a fall in recent years in the numbers applying to study certain languages at university.

The falls are having an impact on the languages “pipeline”, the report suggests, affecting the numbers of language graduates and trained teachers.

This, along with reductions in EU school staff, will threaten languages in schools, it says.

The study concludes: “The assumption that ‘the rest of the world speaks English’ hinders new international collaborations and overlooks cultural and cognitive enhancement developed by learning.

“Political developments mean change is more pressing. If the UK is to thrive outside the EU, language skills cannot be ignored – the UK must address educational declines and capitalise on ‘untapped reservoirs of linguistic capacity’.

“It is crucial that ancient and modern languages receive support in schools and higher education.”

The report puts forward a series of recommendations, including calling for foreign language study to be compulsory at GCSE level, with youngsters encouraged, but not obliged to take an accredited GCSE or alternative qualification.

Report author Megan Bowler, a third-year Classics undergraduate at the University of Oxford, said: “It was a big mistake to scrap compulsory foreign languages at GCSE.

“Rather than continuing to present languages as not suitable for everyone, we need to include a broader range of pupils learning through a variety of qualifications geared to different needs.”

Nick Hillman, HEPI director said: “The decision to limit language learning in schools by making GCSE languages voluntary is probably the single most damaging education policy implemented in England so far this century.

“The UK is bottom of the pile for the number of young people familiar with another language, and miles behind every EU country.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “We are committed to ensuring more pupils are studying languages, which is why it is compulsory for all children between years three and nine.

“The introduction of the EBacc halted the decline in languages and since 2010 the proportion of pupils studying a language at GCSE has risen from 40% to 47% in 2019.

“We are also taking a range of steps to make sure that the uptake of languages continues to increase, such as creating a new network of schools and funding programmes like our Mandarin Excellence Programme.”