The languages class divide How optional languages in the state sector may be disadvantaging students

GCSE results were published yesterday. For the 23rd year running, the trend was an improving one, with more pupils getting better grades. It’s not all good news though. The statistics also confirm a continuing decline in take-up in foreign languages: the number of students taking a language has dropped by a third since the government made them optional at GCSE six years ago.

Having said that, there are places bucking the trend where languages are still flourishing. Amongst the proverbial ivy and oak panels, the house ties and the straw hats, the study of foreign languages is still thriving in British private independent schools.

Since languages were made optional in the state sector, take up has nose dived to an all time low, with languages disappearing altogether from some schools at the hands of head teachers who saw an opportunity to save cash for a more popular performing arts and media centre.

Some head teachers, however, had no option but to abandon languages altogether at Key Stage 4 and beyond due to appallingly low take-up. Some students in the state sector really could not wait to get rid of a subject they perceived as hard, pointless and boring as hell.

However, private schools in the UK have tended to retain languages as compulsory to GCSE (age 16), with some doing the International Baccalaureate studying a compulsory language all the way to university entrance age, thus creating a de-facto class divide: those who can afford a private education are learning other languages, whereas those who cannot are not.

In my own school, a private independent school for boys, one language is compulsory to GCSE but many students choose two and, in some cases, even three. Our results at GCSE this year have been our best ever and we are looking at a healthy take up in languages post GCSE, when they become optional.

We often talk in terms languages becoming optional for children, however parents have an important role to play. As Head of Modern Languages, I seldom find myself having to justify the position of languages in our curriculum, whereas colleagues in the state sector are always struggling to find new ways to convince parents that speaking and understanding one or more foreign languages may be advantageous for little Kieran’s future.

Wealthier parents, it would seem, are more likely to understand the value of widened horizons and international communication. It would also appear then that the more privileged your background is, the more likely you are to be studying languages in the UK.

Faced with rich and famous people able to speak other languages – from politicians to pop singers, from famous actors to stand up comedians- it is tempting for a language teacher bent on selling his subject to uninterested teens to conclude that speaking a language is the reason why such people are rich and famous in the first place.

This is why modern languages departments in schools across the English speaking world often tout long lists of celebrities who speak or otherwise have a connection (often tenuous) to a foreign language. The problem is that they all ignore the even longer list of rich and famous people who don’t speak any languages at all.

Being able to speak a language is therefore often wrongly hailed as the cause of  being wealthier, whereas the fact is that being able to speak languages other than your own is merely an indicator of  your socio-economic status and, therefore, of your relative wealth.

What is really going on is that wealthier people often receive a better education which often happens to include at least one foreign language. The state sector in most cases does provide a good education, however, the fact is that the private sector provides a better one, which is why those who can afford to send their kids to private school. Simple supply and demand.

But we shouldn’t, in my view, begrudge the private sector for providing a better education to their pupils, who then grow up to be better off and able to send their own children to private school, thus perpetuating the cycle.

Instead, rather than looking at why the private sector often provides an education that is classed as excellent, what we should be looking into is why the state sector is not.

Optional languages in the state sector are not the cause of a relatively poorer education, but rather a symptom of a wider malaise. If the wealthier pupils are perpetuating their own cycle, the state sector is also perpetuating a self-fulfiling prophecy in which pupils from less fortunate backgrounds are denied the opportunity to improve their socio-economic standing.

The class divide lives on.

Photo by  Jimmy Sime 1937


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  1. Interesting piece, Jose. If MFL subjects really are more demanding, it strikes me that we as a society are doing state schools pupils no favours by effectively not allowing them access. Rather than always lowering the bar, we should be providing them with ways to get over it.

  2. At my state school the teacher's just weren't any good. I know everybody says that, but they really weren't. They were desperate to be employed anywhere that would have them and at least one of them had had a serious misconduct charge brought against them in the past (my mother worked for the school and found out!!).

    The students used to disrupt the classes and these teachers had absolutely no control over them. The few of us who did want to improve told the (only decent) language teacher that we'd do extra Italian lessons (we weren't taught Italian at the school, but she was able to teach it) during our lunch breaks. She asked for approval from the headmaster to conduct these lessons (she was willing) and he refused permission. One of my friends opted to take French, the other language offered by the school, as an extra subject but was offered no support in this and had to study off her own back.

    The quality of the teaching staff in private schools is often far superior to that in state schools. I had friends in private education who were being taught, and challenged, far more than I ever was in state school.

    My maths lessons, and teacher, were so appalling that my parents had to pay for a maths tutor to teach me twice a week. I excelled at maths after that. A friend's parents paid for her to have a science tutor, the same happened.

    In fact, my state school is so appalling that it doesn't publish it's GCSE results anymore. The year I finished there was the last time they allowed them to be released – a mere 41% of pupils achieved 5 Grade C's or above.

    The bizarre part of this is that at least 3/4 of the school were white, middle-class background pupils. It was the 1/4 of disruptive pupils (I've witnessed classrooms being set alight and windows smashed) that ruined it for everybody else and who the teacher's just let run absolute riot. School was a thoroughly miserable experience – I don't know what motivated me to stay on and gain an MA !!

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