Student mentors help pupils say ‘si’ to GCSE languages

Undergraduates help secondary schools to reverse the decline in exam entries

It is a question arguably more fiendish than mastering the French subjunctive or the thousands of characters in Mandarin. How can schools halt – and even reverse – the swift decline of languages at GCSE and beyond?

Now a pilot project may have found the answer. A report published today finds that numbers of pupils choosing to take a foreign language can be dramatically increased by mentoring from undergraduates who have chosen to specialise in the subject at university.

Independent analysis of a government-funded pilot in 10 Sheffield secondary schools found that more than half of participating pupils said they would take a language GCSE as a result of mentoring by undergraduates. The study showed that the programme also boosted take-up among pupils who were not mentored: GCSE entries this year for languages across schools in the Sheffield pilot are up 43% on 2018.

Over the past 15 years entries for language GCSEs in England’s secondary schools have fallen by 48%, with German down 65% and French down 62%. The slump accelerated after 2004, when languages were made non-compulsory subjects at GCSE. Overall, only 46% of pupils now take a GCSE language.

“This shows it is possible to tackle the language crisis,” said Teresa Tinsley, director of research consultancy Alcantara Communications. “The success of this project is down to targeted intervention at a key moment before pupils are choosing their options, and the leadership shown by the university partners in developing and implementing an imaginative and effective scheme. The ability to draw on the enthusiasm of university students as mentors has been critical: they are closer in age to pupils than their parents or teachers, and offer real-life examples of the future opportunities that learning another language opens up.”

Tinsley said the project’s impact had been particularly positive because it focused on pupils who initially said they were not going to opt for a language GCSE or were unlikely to do so.

The project surveyed all the pupils in the year they choose their GCSE options, usually year eight or nine, and found that in eight of the 10 schools more than 70% of pupils said they did not intend to choose a language or were not sure they would. After five weeks of face-to-face and online mentoring by language undergraduates at Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam universities, 55% said they had chosen to take a language at GCSE.

The city’s pilot was funded by the Department for Education and based on a similar scheme in Wales, funded by the Welsh government. Language GCSE entries have risen year on year in schools participating in the Welsh digi-languages project has seen language GCSE entries in participating schools rise year on year. Last year, 43% of pupils at the 18 schools in the Welsh scheme took a GCSE in a modern language, compared with 18.6% of all pupils in Wales in 2018.

Claire Gorrara, academic lead for the languages project and professor of French at Cardiff university, said: “Many pupils feel languages are too difficult, that they won’t get a good grade and don’t feel a language qualification will be useful to them. These results in Sheffield show that, like in Wales, concerted action to promote the value of languages can change attitudes and increase take-up at GCSE.

“Mentoring helps tackle pupils’ anxieties about languages and shows that anyone can learn a language.”

The findings prompted calls to roll out the scheme more widely. Professor Neil Kenny, languages lead at the British Academy, the national body for the humanities and social sciences, said: “These heartening results show the success of the pioneering Modern Languages Student Mentoring scheme in Wales is not a one-off. It can be replicated elsewhere. At a time when the take-up of languages at GCSE is alarmingly low in many areas, this is that rare thing: an intervention that makes a clear difference. What needs to happen next is for this model to be rolled out on a national scale, with the support of universities and the Department for Education.

“Languages are vital for young people’s futures – for their social mobility, their skills, their productivity, and their intercultural understanding in a globalised world. Now more than ever, the UK needs languages to boost trade, soft power, diplomacy, and social cohesion. But language learning is in decline at almost every life stage and in many contexts. That’s why the British Academy is calling for a genuinely joined-up national strategy for languages.”

Jennie Skitt, modern foreign languages subject leader at Stocksbridge high school in Sheffield, said the programme was “something completely different to anything we’ve ever done before at Stocksbridge”.

“The idea of getting undergraduates to work with our year eight students at the time of choosing their options seemed great in opening up the world and them hearing about languages from someone other than just their language teachers and their peers.”

Skitt said half the participants chose GCSE French – the only language available – and overall entries for French GCSE doubled.

Helen Care, assistant principal at Swinton academy in Mexborough, Rotherham, said: “Enabling our students to have face-to-face contact with young people who have had a positive language-learning experience at school, are passionate about travel and different cultures and are now studying languages at degree level has been the catalyst we needed to motivate our students who were unsure about taking a language at GCSE.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Taking a foreign language helps to broaden the horizons and ambitions of young people. We’ve taken steps to halt the decline in language uptake since languages became optional at GCSE in 2004. The proportion of children taking a language at GCSE increased from 40% in 2010 to 46% in 2018 – and we are determined to see this rise further.

“With languages being part of the Ebacc (English Baccalaureate) combination of subjects, we want to see 75% of pupils studying at GCSE by 2022.

“The approach being piloted by Cardiff university is an exciting part of this overall work.”


Anna Bawden

The GuardianTramp

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