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If youngsters like the EU so much, why won’t they learn its languages?


ENTHUSIASM for the EU in Britain is greatest amongst young people. Last year the BBC reported that a poll of polls showed 82 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds support Remain.

This rises to 87 per cent amongst new voters – an estimated two million young people – according to a 2019 survey.

Because of the younger generation’s support for Remain, many commentators conclude that they are more open-minded and inclined to embrace the wider world in general, and Europe in particular, than the more pro-Brexit older generation. An important piece of educational news, however, suggests that this assumption may be wide of the mark.

Judging young people by the subject choices they make at GCSE, we discover considerable insularity and narrow-mindedness. The number of GCSE candidates for French and German has fallen by 63 and 67 per cent respectively over the past sixteen years.

Major trading partners and cultural cousins they may be, but when it comes to speaking their languages, most Brit kids do not want to know. The minds of too many young people are more closed than we have assumed.

Spanish, it is true, appears to be doing much better, with a 75 per cent candidate increase across the same period. This is not necessarily a benign consequence of the Club Med culture. The local lingo is not widely spoken in the clubs and bars of Ibiza that are popular with young people. And this year’s 102,242 Spanish GCSE candidates represents only 1.8 per cent of all GCSE entries.

The number of GCSEs taken in French is in free-fall but, at 130,831 – 2.4 per cent of total GCSE entries – is still ahead of Spanish. The state of German GCSE is chronic with only 42,791 candidates (0.8 per cent of all GCSEs taken).

A-Level modern languages are, if anything, in an even more parlous state. The number of pupils opting for A-Level German this summer dropped to just 3,033. Candidates in French fell to 8,355. Spanish was up a few hundred but only to 8,625.

Modern foreign languages are in peril and the government’s examination regulator, Ofqual, has started to address the problem. Its first step is to deal with the plunging popularity of French and German at GCSE. Ofqual has concluded that the reason must be that the marking of French and German examination papers is too harsh. How else can a slightly higher number of top grades in Spanish be explained?

Last summer’s GCSE Spanish exams produced top grades of 7, 8 and 9 (formerly A* and A) for 26 per cent of candidates. The comparative top grade percentages for German and French were 24.2 and 23.7.

Since, according to Ofqual boss Sally Collier, ‘all our kids are brilliant’, if there if nothing amiss with the kids, then there must be something amiss with the exams. Bonus marks are, therefore, to be awarded to pupils sitting GCSEs in French and in German. Ofqual has concluded that: ‘On the balance of the evidence we have gathered, we have judged that there is a sufficiently strong case to make an adjustment to grading standards in French and German but not Spanish.’

A noticeable omission from the Ofqual statement is the 59.5 per cent top grade pass rate for Latin GCSE. While it does not qualify as ‘modern’, it has never been regarded as an easy foreign language option.

The rapid decline started in 2004 when the Labour government of the time made modern foreign language learning optional at Key Stage 4 (age 14-16). The introduction in 2010 of a five-subject English Baccalaureate (EBacc) as a school performance indicator, however, was intended to boost modern languages at GCSE.

The decision being made by young people to ditch modern foreign languages shows that their minds are becoming more closed, not more open, as time passes. Their support for Remain appears to be rooted quite widely in concern about disruption to their holiday travel plans. From their point of view it is the responsibility of Johnny Foreigner to learn English and that is an end to it.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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