The British Academy responds to 2020 A levels data

13 Aug 2020

With the release today of this year’s A level results, the British Academy warns that the continuing decline in the number of students in England taking ‘other languages’ poses significant risk to the UK’s linguistic capacity – a key component in trade, soft power and social cohesion.

Today’s Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) data show a continued decline in the number of students taking qualifications in languages, which has fallen 13% this year. There has been a particularly big fall in students taking ‘other languages’ – including languages such as Mandarin, Arabic, Urdu, Turkish, Russian, and Japanese – where entries this year are 40%  down year on year, following a fall of 14% between 2018 and 2019.

Interest in Spanish continues to increase slightly (up 1%), building on the upwards trend seen at GCSE. Numbers for French seem to have stabilised this year, but at historically low levels. Numbers for German have fallen 6% following a slight upturn last year.

The Academy has also flagged how the exceptional arrangements Ofqual has put in place to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 have disadvantaged those students taking qualifications in ‘other languages’. Ordinarily, the supplementary schools that teach these languages work with the students’ main schools to administer the examinations, but this year many mainstream schools have been unwilling to include these grades in their A level entries as they cannot confirm whether the grades are valid. This means some students will not have received grades for their work.

Earlier this year the British Academy, with partners from across the education sector, published proposals for a national languages strategy, which seeks to build on existing initiatives to reverse the persistent decline in take up of languages throughout the education pipeline. The economic cost of the UK’s linguistic underperformance, in terms of lost trade and investment has been estimated at 3.5% of GDP. Stronger recognition of the importance of multilingualism and the UK’s linguistic diversity has the potential to be an asset for the UK. It would support social integration by acknowledging the crucial role of language as part of an individual’s social identity, and enhance cohesion, openness, and tolerance of others in the local community and beyond.

The A level data released today also show a drop in the numbers obtaining A levels in Geography and History, though there is currently no evidence that this is a long-term trend.

Professor Neil Kenny FBA, British Academy Lead Fellow for Languages, said:

“The exceptional circumstances surrounding today’s A level results for England, Wales and Northern Ireland hide an important issue for the future linguistic capacity of the UK. Of most concern is the substantial fall in students taking ‘other languages’ such as Mandarin, Urdu, Arabic and Japanese. Entries this year are 40% down from 2019 – a decline that is nearly three times as steep as the 14% drop between 2018 and 2019.

“The impact we see today in the small number of formal qualifications awarded in these languages will exacerbate the sense that skills in heritage and community languages are not valued, despite the crucial role many of these students may have played over the last few months in translating and interpreting public health messages for those who do not understand English well.

“Giving students the opportunities to take qualifications in community and heritage languages helps them to develop and recognise the value of the linguistic skills they have. This is vital to addressing the UK’s linguistic deficit and the generally poor attitude towards language learning in this country. If we want to enhance both our engagement with the rest of the world and our national social cohesion, we need our citizens to be better at languages other than English and to value them more highly.”

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