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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.

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 (p.42). There have been regular calls from industry and educational bodies for the levels of attainment to be raised.

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 2022/23 there were around 313,000 entries in modern language GCSEs in England. This was around 47% of the number of pupils at the end of Key Stage 4 across all types of schools (this is not the same as 47% 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.

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

Modern language teacher trainee recruitment for secondary schools as measured by the 2023/24 Initial Teacher Training (ITT) census was below the average for secondary school teachers. In 2023/24 there were 974 new postgraduate entrants to ITT for modern languages. This was 1,986 teachers (or 67%) below the target. For all secondary subjects recruitment was 50% below target.

This briefing relates to England only. It discusses the teaching of ancient and foreign languages, and also British Sign Language) but does not include information on the teaching of English for students with another first language.

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