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Language learning in England is consistently poor when compared with foreign language learning in other countries. The European Commission’s Flash Barometer Report found that in April 2018 32% of UK 15-30 year olds felt confident reading and writing in two or more languages, compared to 79% in France, 91% in Germany, and 80% on average across EU member states. There have been regular calls from industry and educational bodies for the levels of attainment to be raised.

Languages are a part of the National Curriculum in England from ages 7-14, with the requirements at Key Stage 3 specifying that a modern language is taught.  Revised content for GCSE, AS and A level languages has been in place since September 2016.

Most pupils will be required to take a GCSE in a modern language under Government plans for the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) to be taken by 75% of year 10 pupils by September 2022, and 90% of pupils by 2025.

Ofsted reports have found important strengths in language teaching in English schools, alongside significant weaknesses. A 2015 report on Key Stage 3 identified modern languages classes as requiring significant improvement, particularly in light of the introduction of the strengthened EBacc. A 2016 report by Ofsted also raised concerns on language teaching in primary schools.

Most schools teach one or more of French, German and Spanish, but the Government does not promote the teaching of particular languages.  In 2015, concerns were raised about the withdrawal of GCSE and A level qualifications in lesser-taught languages such as Arabic, Japanese and Polish. Following discussions between the Government and exam boards, qualifications in many of these languages were retained.

In academic year 2020/21 there were around 297,000 entries in modern language GCSEs in England.  This was around 46% of the number of pupils at the end of Key Stage 4 across all types of schools (this is not the same as 46% of pupils taking a modern language because some pupils might take more than one modern language). This compares to around 86% in 1997/98. The decline over this period has been driven by fewer entries in French and German which have only been partially offset by increases in Spanish. A-Level entries have followed similar trends.

This briefing relates to England only. It discusses the teaching of ancient and foreign languages (including sign language), and does not include information on the teaching of English for students with another first language.

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