World class

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Issue 115 | Autumn Term 1 2020

Harriet Barnes from the British Academy highlights how a coalition of organisations, including ASCL, are working together to tackle the decline in language learning.

The challenge of encouraging more students to study modern foreign languages at the points where they have a choice of subjects is well known and enduring. Take up at GCSE and A level has been steadily falling for at least 15 years. Despite the government’s aim for 90% of pupils in England to take a language (modern or ancient) at GCSE by 2025, fewer than half of them do. Across the UK, the number of undergraduates in modern languages fell by 54% between 2008–9 and 2017–18. With fewer students applying, at least ten modern languages departments have closed in the last decade, and a further nine significantly downsized. The economic cost of the UK’s linguistic underperformance, in terms of lost trade and investment, has been estimated at 3.5% of gross domestic product (GDP).

The reasons behind this decline are multiple and complex – concerns about the difficulty of doing well in these subjects is widely recognised as one, while the dominance of English in our society and culture, not just in the UK but globally, is another. It’s tempting to put it on the ‘too difficult’ pile, and dismiss it as something that can’t be solved, but, fortunately, there are those of us who appreciate the many benefits that learning a language other than English can bring. Languages are vital for fostering effective international cooperation and commercial links, as well as for improving educational performance, cognitive function and skills, opportunity, intercultural understanding and social cohesion. It is because of this that a coalition of leading organisations comprising the British Academy, ASCL, the British Council, Universities UK and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) have come together to try to find some answers.

A national strategy

The result of our collaboration is a set of recommendations for what should be included in the education and skills component of a UK-wide national languages strategy, presented in the document, Towards a National Languages Strategy: Education and skills

This strategy is the first UK-wide languages initiative in a generation, and consists of short and medium-term actions for schools, colleges, universities, employers and others. It takes account of the different language and policy landscapes of the UK’s four jurisdictions.


Our proposals – many of which require only modest funding and are easy to implement – are broken down into actions that we believe are needed to deal with issues that without immediate attention might reach a point of no return, and recommendations that we recognise may take longer to implement. They are:

Short-term actions – the next 12 months
  • Awareness raising and information sharing (UK-wide):
    We recommend that the languages education and skills community work together to establish and promote Languages UK as a recognised brand for a collaborative web-based resource that provides a single authoritative portal for languages provision.

  • Grading and setting of GCSE and A level examinations (England, Northern Ireland, Wales):
    We recommend the adjustment of grade boundaries for language qualifications at both A level and GCSE to ensure a level playing field for students taking these subjects.

  • Advanced Languages Premium (England, Northern Ireland, Wales):
    We recommend the introduction of an Advanced Languages Premium for study of languages at RQF level 3 (A level and equivalent) as an incentive to schools that have low levels of provision and take-up.

  • Higher education funding (UK-wide):
    We recommend that funding models for undergraduate education cover the full costs of provision for language degrees and other learning opportunities for languages.

  • Staff and student mobility (UK-wide):
    We recommend that schemes for outward mobility such as Erasmus+, and those that enable language specialists to come to the UK to teach, are able to continue to at least their present level into the future.

Medium and long-term actions – one to five years
  • Infrastructure and coordination (UK-wide):
    We recommend the strengthening of existing funded partnerships or centres supporting the primary and secondary sectors (to spread best practice and help all children have access to high-quality provision) and the creation of strategic committees for higher education and further education (to facilitate coordination and planning).

  • Ambassador and mentor schemes (UK-wide):
    We recommend the expansion of existing ambassador and mentor schemes that demonstrate impact through robust evaluation.

  • Recognition of qualifications (UK-wide):
    We recommend the creation of an accessible cross-sector framework for language competence and qualifications.

  • Primary language curriculum (England, Wales, Northern Ireland):
    We recommend further work to establish and then implement the best approach for the primary curriculum, and for the transition to secondary.

  • Post-16 languages qualifications (England, Wales, Northern Ireland):
    We recommend that providers of post-16 education incorporate language elements in existing extension qualifications, and exploration of new types of post-16 qualifications in languages.

  • Languages in initial teacher education (UK-wide):
    We recommend extension of the amount of time allocated to primary languages subject specialism and stipulation of a statutory minimum amount of time for subject-specific pathways.

  • Strategy for teacher retention (England, Wales, Scotland):
    We recommend a joined-up strategy for retention and recruitment of language teachers, recognising that different teacher education and accreditation arrangements exist across the jurisdictions.

  • Intensive schemes for language learning (England, Wales, Northern Ireland):
    We recommend building on the success of the Mandarin Excellence Programme by introducing intensive schemes for other languages that are accessible to all learners, with a focus on areas of multiple deprivation in the UK and other areas where language learning uptake is low.

  • Integration of languages in vocational and technical qualifications (UK-wide):
    We recommend the incorporation of language learning into vocational and technical qualifications where appropriate.

If together we succeed in reversing the persistent decline in take-up of languages throughout the education pipeline, the UK could become a linguistic powerhouse: more prosperous, productive, influential, innovative, knowledgeable, culturally richer, healthier and more socially cohesive. Languages should not just be for the socially advantaged, but for everyone. We must act now to make this a reality.

Harriet Barnes
Head of Policy (HE and Skills) at the British Academy

Related Pages

Supporting Pupils with Home, Heritage and Community Languages (primary)

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  • Curriculum
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Supporting Pupils with Home, Heritage and Community Languages (primary)

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Curriculum and Assessment Committee

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