Foreign languages in schools being affected by Brexit

Brexit is posing a major challenge to providing high-quality language teaching, with ongoing uncertainties having a negative impact on pupils’ motivation to learn a European language.

A new British Council survey of more than 1,600 teachers found that tough exams are discouraging pupils in England from learning languages, with 71 per cent at state secondary school teachers concerned about the content of language exams.

Since 2014 there has been a 19 per cent reduction in the number of entries for GCSE languages, with both French and German seeing a decline of 30 per cent, although Spanish has remained more stable with just a two per cent decline over the same period. At A-level, all three languages saw a decline in entries between 2017 and 2018, with German down 16 per cent, French seven per cent, and Spanish three per cent.

However, of growing concern, 25 per cent of teachers at state secondary schools and 15 per cent at independent schools reported Brexit as having a negative impact on pupils’ motivation to learn a European language or languages in general, with 36 per cent reporting that pupils had mixed attitudes towards languages as a result of Brexit. Teachers also noted an impact on parental attitudes, with some parents actively discouraging their children from learning languages.

As a result of declining language uptake in recent years, home-grown language teachers are in short supply and two thirds of state schools (67 per cent) and 79 per cent of independent schools employ one or more staff who are EU citizens. Around one quarter (24 per cent) of independent schools and one third (34 per cent) of state schools report difficulties recruiting language staff.

Teresa Tinsley, who led the research, said: “The report paints a picture of language learning in England becoming increasingly segregated along both socio-economic and academic lines. 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, challenges that Brexit looks to exacerbate. We all know the pressures schools are under, but these inequalities are not good for our society or the future of our country.”