HMC backs call by MPs and Peers for new government measures to protect the UK’s urgent strategic need for language skills

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents leading independent schools in the UK, today backed the call by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages for the government to take action to further protect the teaching of modern foreign languages.

HMC, whose students are vastly over represented in university MFL courses, announced the launch last week of a unique national teacher training centre for languages. Education Minister Nick Gibb has supported the launch and more than 50 of HMC’s 282 schools have already expressed interest in being involved in its development.

HMC Chair, Mike Buchanan, Head of Ashford School said:

“The heads of HMC schools strongly support the statement released today by the All-Party Group on the urgency of protecting language skills in Britain.

“There is a long term spiral of decline in language learning across the country which requires immediate attention.

“HMC schools are doing what we can, and we are proud both of our increasingly central role in ensuring the survival of languages in British universities, and the new national teacher training centre.

“But more is needed to reverse this trend. The national situation is parlous, with the number of candidates sitting A-levels in French and German having halved since 2001.

“Despite the new support teacher training and improvements to exam design stimulated by the regulator, Ofqual, the situation has not yet been stabilised. While this remains the case, prospects for any sort of recovery being possible continue to diminish.”

Background briefing

Exam concerns and the continuing national decline in candidate entries

As HMC has reported annually since 2012, the decline in pupils studying languages in English schools continues to be undermined by lack of confidence in exam results and this year there is a new concern: ‘harsh grading’ at GCSE to sit alongside depressed AS level grades, with significant numbers of candidates re-graded on appeal and misalignment with predicted grades (including marks for orals or, most baffling, the performance of bilingual students compared to those whose first language is English).

While independent schools have largely weathered this storm (see next section on university applicants), UK-wide figures for exam candidates in summer 2016 remain alarming.

  • A-level entries: Spanish down by 2.7%, German down by 4.2% and French down by 6.4%.  Only 113 boys took A level French in Wales this year.
  • AS level entries:Spanish down by 4.8%, German down by 10.7% and French down by 10.1%.
  • GCSE entries (16 year old entrants): Spanish up 2.9% but down in German by 6.7% and French by 7.5%.

Since 2001 UK A-level numbers have fallen by 46% in French (to 9,673) and 55% in German (to 3,842).

New figures on undergraduate applications: independent schools even more central to keeping languages alive in British universities

  • Mid-2000s (when there were many more state school language students than now): one third of all undergraduates at the 30 leading UK universities came from independent schools.
  • 2015: independent school sixth formers were five times more likely than the average for all undergraduate applicants to choose modern languages (HMC/GSA HE applications survey).
  • 2016: independent school sixth formers were seven times more likely than the average for all undergraduate applicants to choose modern languages (ditto).

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