EBacc – passport to success in the global economy?

Katrin Kohl

According to School Standards Minister Nick Gibb, the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is designed to “ensure our pupils are able to compete with educational high performers in a global economy”. Inclusion of a language in the EBacc indicates the government’s commitment to giving young people the language skills they will need if they are to operate successfully in a global environment. But the reality is that language learning in UK schools continues to decline.

According to the government’s ambitious target, 90% of pupils will be studying the EBacc subjects by 2025. But languages have proved to be an intractable sticking point. According to think tank Education Datalab, just 40% of pupils were entered for all five elements of the EBacc in 2016. While double science entries increased nationally from 61% in 2011 to 87% in 2016, “the overall EBacc entry rate has stalled because there has been little increase in entries in languages” since 2014. The entry rate in languages remains around 50%. Ofqual’s announcement of a further drop in pupils opting for languages at GCSE (Spanish down by 3%, French by 10% and German by 12%) suggests that on this count alone the target will fail to be met.

Many factors are contributing to the gap between target and attainment. Despite the incentive of bursaries, the shortage of modern languages teachers is intensifying. It was already a looming crisis before the referendum vote, given a vicious circle of falling A-level entries, falling applications for university places in modern languages, shrinking university departments, and fewer trainee teachers. This left France, Spain and Germany as the most promising recruitment ground for the three main languages taught in schools. But the prospect of Brexit and an uncertain future for EU nationals have made the UK unattractive for new recruits while also driving some of the existing teachers out of the system.

Modern Foreign Languages has for many years been subject to unreliable and severe grading in GCSEs and A levels. In April, Ofqual issued a commitment to address this at least in the summer A-level exams. The effect of severe grading has been catastrophic for modern languages since students have understandably avoided a subject that holds the risk of missed university offers, while modern languages departments at all levels have suffered the impact of falling participation.

The reformed GCSEs and A-levels are bringing a reduction in the range of subjects taken by students, with the loss of the fourth AS level and the sustained drive to promote STEM subjects impacting especially negatively on languages. The current spending squeeze and stipulations concerning minimum class sizes have resulted in schools reducing the range of languages they offer, and some secondary schools have cut A-level languages altogether. Moreover, curriculum time available for languages is frequently inadequate with the result that students lose motivation and teachers don’t have the scope to go beyond exam requirements. Further impoverishment of the learning experience is caused by a reduction of language assistants and many schools abandoning school exchanges not least because of safeguarding concerns and DfE vetting guidelines.

The most fundamental challenge is posed by English becoming the primary global language. This should have prompted exam boards to come up with imaginative syllabuses that speak not only to the practical benefits of language skills but also to their important role in areas such as cognitive development, cultural identity and the creative arts. Instead, syllabuses have paradoxically focused increasingly on transactional language and dull topics that are divorced from cultural context.

So are there any bright spots on the horizon for UK learners? The crisis offers the opportunity for a reinvigoration of the subject that acknowledges the role of English as the globally shared lingua franca while focusing on the vital importance linguistic diversity continues to have for our individual identities, our cultural communities, and our interactions with people across the world.

The research programme Creative Multilingualism responds to this challenge by researching the value of languages beyond their transactional usefulness, focusing on the interaction between languages and creativity. It is one of four programmes funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in its £16 million Open World Research Initiative designed to give languages a higher profile and develop a new vision for the subject. The interdisciplinary programmes led by Cambridge, Manchester, Oxford and King’s College London are training new researchers and developing new modes of collaboration with a wide range of partners.

Whether the reformed GCSE and A-level syllabuses will boost take-up and progression in languages remains to be seen. Much will depend on whether Ofqual and the exam boards get a grip on severe and unreliable grading, and avoid setting standards unrealistically high. Once young linguists are rewarded appropriately for their efforts, they will gain more satisfaction from engaging with the new syllabuses and the opportunities they provide for exploring a new culture, gaining new communication skills, and seeing their own language from a fresh perspective.

Other initiatives could similarly help to give a new impetus. The vital interaction between language learning and cultural exchange was recently recognised in additional funding for UK-German Connection, a bilateral initiative that brings young British and German people together. Meanwhile the Mandarin Excellence Programme is giving selected schools the opportunity to offer intensive Mandarin and benefit from a special teacher training scheme. Academic qualifications in community languages were rescued last year when pressure groups persuaded their MPs of the importance of ‘smaller entry’ languages including Urdu, Arabic, Polish and Turkish. The challenge ahead lies in acknowledging the value of home languages and enabling students to develop them as an academic and career asset.

Language provision in UK schools will be hit hard by Brexit – yet the need for home-grown language talent will increase if employing foreign nationals becomes more difficult. For young British people to compete successfully in the global economy, they will need to be equipped with the necessary communication skills and an understanding of the fact that neither the English language nor a purely British mindset will open every global door.

Katrin Kohl is Professor of German Literature at the University of Oxford. She is Principal Investigator on the Creative Multilingualism research programme and leads the first strand: The Creative power of metaphor.

Where next?

Helping to balance the European argument – John le Carré speaks out for language learning

Creative translation: bending the rules to keep it personal

Growing up in a multilingual family