Northern Ireland news

Study of languages in schools in sharp decline

Language Trends Northern Ireland was undertaken by the British Council

THE study of languages in schools has declined significantly in the last decade, a report has found.

Just one in three primaries timetable languages while GCSE and A-level entries have plummeted.

The Language Trends Northern Ireland study was undertaken by the British Council.

It surveyed more than 300 schools to provide an in-depth look at the landscape of language teaching and learning.

The report was based on responses to online surveys.

Unlike other regions of the UK, a modern language forms no part of the primary curriculum in Northern Ireland.

There was a setback in 2015 when popular Spanish, Irish and Polish classes for children were scrapped, a casualty of budget cuts.

The report found that 55 per cent of primary schools offered some form of language teaching, however, excluding voluntary and after-school provision, this dropped to 33 per cent.

Spanish was the most frequently taught, followed by French and then Irish.

Schools said they saw cultural awareness as the most important benefit, however, the benefits of language-learning for literacy were not being fully exploited.

Those with the most structured provision were most likely to be prep schools or located in urban areas.

Many lamented the discontinuation of the Primary Modern Languages Programme and would like to be able to employ specialist teachers.

At post-primary level, there was a wide variation in practice with the most favourable arrangements found in selective schools.

Post-16 provision was becoming increasingly vulnerable due to very small class sizes, funding pressures and "inefficacious arrangements between schools for joint delivery of the curriculum".

Teachers attributed the shrinkage of entries at both GCSE and A-level to the nature and content of the exams, perceived severe grading in comparison to other subjects and the relatively low status of languages compared to `stem' subjects.

Since 2010, entries for all the main modern languages declined at A-level.

French and German fell by 40 and 29 per cent respectively. Entries for Spanish and Irish dropped by 6 per cent, while other languages saw numbers increase slightly.

"We believe that the harsh examining of GCSE and A-level French over the recent years has contributed to its decline. Also, the rigours of learning a language including the amount of independent learning, skill development and practice puts pupils off," the report read.

"They are under more pressure than ever to achieve certain grades and want to be sure of getting these. With a language, it's deemed very difficult to get the best grades. Only the best linguists can survive.

"The emphasis on stem subjects has encouraged pupils and their parents to disregard languages as useful for employment. Brexit has made Europe and all it has to offer more distant and therefore its languages less necessary."

Janice Carruthers, professor of linguistics at Queen’s University Belfast said unlike Scotland, Wales and England, the north had not benefited from any specific initiative or policy to support languages.

"We need a clear message from our devolved government about the importance of languages for key parts of our economy, not least tourism and inward investment," she said.

"There is an opportunity in Northern Ireland to address the challenge before uptake falls even further. I hope our devolved government will respond as a matter of urgency."

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