PRESS BRIEFING: New government-backed initiative to save language teaching announced

Move comes as further evidence is revealed of of dubious exam marking

  • DfE minister Nick Gibb confirms new action on language teacher supply
  • New reports of persistent and baffling problems with school exams
  • Fresh figures show higher education even more reliant on university applicants from independent schools, as overall student numbers continue to drop

Teacher supply

A new national teacher training centre for linguists is to be established in a bid to stop the crisis in modern foreign language skills in the UK, the Annual Conference of leading independent school heads was told today

HMC Chairman Mike Buchanan announced that schools willing to train language teachers would be identified across the country.  He told the conference of over 300 leading head teachers that the “ground-breaking collaboration” was initially to be based in Sheffield and was the first time such a scheme had been attempted on a national level.

Mr Buchanan said:

“For over 20 years, educationalists and the Government have been concerned about the decline in numbers of students choosing to study languages. This is not only culturally impoverishing, but likely to put UK pupils at a major disadvantage in a global marketplace in which 75% of people do not speak English.

“The reasons for this are complex but include the difficulty of achieving a top grade compared with other subjects, leading to less take up, smaller departments and fewer teachers.

“The details are being worked out, but there is huge energy behind the project from all the partners.”

Led by Silverdale School in Sheffield, a state school experienced in such work, the plan is to find schools of all types willing to train language teachers. This is the first time such a project has been attempted on a national level.

Mr Buchanan said:

“This is a truly exciting project which serves to show the many different ways in which Government, state schools and the independent sector can use their individual strengths to build a better education system for everyone. I thank him for his encouraging words.

Education Minister Nick Gibb endorsed the move telling the delegates by video link that the next generation needs to be outward facing and he is delighted by this unique partnership.

State-funded Silverdale is one of the government’s Teaching Schools, it leads a Multi- Academy trust and is currently rated by OFSTED as ‘Outstanding’ in all categories of its work.

Strategic Manager at Silverdale, Gaynor Jones, said:

“Silverdale Multi-Academy Trust is thrilled to be leading the way in School Centered Initial Teacher Training by creating an innovative national SCITT which will focus on Modern Languages.  Our highly successful School Direct work has paved the way for us to create a new partnership between state and independent schools where we will train the next generation of outstanding Modern Languages teachers’.

Peter Hamilton, Head of Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School and Chair of HMC’s Academic Policy Committee, himself a linguist, said:

“Independent schools want to be part of the solution to the critical problems of capacity faced by school language departments across the country.  Solutions are urgent because, nationally, language learning remains in steady retreat”.

The Silverdale project, the first national school-based training project of its kind, is expected to take its first trainees next autumn.


This comes as new evidence emerged of “baffling” language exam results GCSE and A-level

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.

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

  • A-level entries in Spanish were 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 in Spanish were down by 4.8%, German down by 10.7% and French down by 10.1%.
  • GCSE entries (16 year old entrants) in Spanish were up 2.9% but down in German by 6.7% and French by 7.5%.

Harsh grading compared to other subjects has, for over a decade, been part of the reason for the latest drastic reduction in exam candidates.  This year the exam regulator appears to have eased this problem at A level but schools report that it has now emerged unexpectedly at GCSE.

Meanwhile, results at AS level also appeared particularly harsh this summer but many schools have found significant numbers of candidates re-graded on appeal, suggesting that initial marking was uhelp nreliable on a large-scale.

But just as sapping in confidence is the extent to which schools cannot recognise the patterns of results their candidates receive – in terms of their predicted grades, marks for orals or, most baffling, the performance of bilingual students compared to those whose first language is English.

For example, The Portsmouth Grammar School remains unhappy with how this overall picture of uncertainty feeds into the grades its pupils achieve.  Headmaster James Priory said:

"We have seen unpredictable language results this year. A number of students predicted B grades, for instance, have received grades below expectation with the result that they are no longer set on studying languages at university. Just as baffling, high achieving bilingual students are performing less well in the oral than those whose first language is English.”

“We have reached the point where the marking and grading of our International Baccalaureate linguists is becoming more reliable year on year than that of those students sitting language A-levels."

Commenting on the new problems which have emerged, Helen Myers, Chair of the Association of language learners (London), representing state funded schools, said:

“Problems with inconsistency in orals arises from a number of factors including features of the original course specification. These can only be addressed in the new course specifications starting this September”.

“At the same time, we are extremely concerned this year about severe grading of modern languages at GCSE”.

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

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

Meanwhile, figures released by HMC today provide fresh evidence that British universities are increasingly reliant on independent schools for the survival of their modern language departments.

In the annual survey of applicants to universities from HMC schools and those of the Girls School Association (GSA), it was found last year that independent school sixth formers were five times more likely than the average for all undergraduate applicants to choose modern languages.  This year’s figure, released today, shows that in 2016 they were seven times more likely to apply for languages.

Peter Hamilton, chair of the HMC Academic Policy sub-committee said

“While HMC schools are proud to be even more central to the survival of languages in British universities, this comes at the price of a terrible hollowing out of national capacity in all schools across the country.”

Minister Nick Gibb’s move to boost teacher recruitment is extremely welcome.  So, too, is the work done by Ofqual to require better designed A level papers at the exam boards although disconcerting new problems with exams continue to emerge. Make no mistake, language learning in schools is moving from being sickly to entering Intensive Care.


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