Language education policies in the UK: trajectories through upper secondary-level and university study in Northern Ireland

Henderson, L. (Presenter)

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


Language learning in the UK is in crisis, despite consistent reports that a national deficit of linguistic competence limits economic, social and cultural prosperity (British Academy et al. 2020). Although, there is evidence of alignment with the European policy position on language learning (Henderson and Carruthers, In preparation), the UK compares poorly with its European neighbours on every available measure of linguistic competence (Taylor and Marsden, 2014). The UK government has launched the Centre of Excellence for Modern Languages (Department for Education (England), 2017) as a flagship initiative in England. In the devolved nations, in addition to strategic efforts to promote modern foreign languages (Welsh Government, 2015) and improve formal recognition of non-curricular heritage languages (Scottish Government Languages Working Group, 2012), the revitalisation of indigenous languages is an important dimension of language education policies (Hancock, 2014). How these three main areas are accommodated in policy across central and devolved governments shows significant variation (Ayres-Bennett and Carruthers, 2019; Henderson and Carruthers, In preparation), but considerable work has been done in each jurisdiction. Nonetheless, raising uptake remains a significant challenge across the UK, leading to proposals for a national languages strategy (British Academy et al., 2020).

The longer-term impact of Brexit remains largely uncertain, but languages uptake is already precarious (Carruthers and Ó Mainnín, 2018; Collen, 2020). Consequences for Higher Education are likely to result from the UK’s withdrawal from the Erasmus programme (New York Times, 2021) , which may affect UK students intending to study in an EU country: either as part of a languages degree; or another cognate discipline. In addition, the linguistic and inter-cultural benefits of inbound mobility for schools and universities is likely to be negatively affected by recently introduced visa requirements for EU Language Assistants (British Council, 2021) and future incoming Erasmus exchange students (University Council of Modern Languages, 2021).

Despite a small upturn in GCSE numbers in 2019 (Tinsley, 2019), raising uptake levels at GCSE , A level and university level remains a challenge (Carruthers and Ó Mainnín, 2018; Henderson and Carruthers, In preparation). The primary research interest is in young people’s motivation to continue to study languages at three key transitions: from compulsory provision to GCSE; from GCSE level to A-Level; and from upper secondary school to Higher Education study. Our aim is to give appropriate priority to the views and experiences of young people, on the basis that young people are experts in their own lives. We share new data relating to a cross-sectional sample of students in Northern Ireland and examine the relative importance of factors which contribute to positive continuations, including student views and experiences of language learning, teaching, assessment and decision-making. In addition to confirming the existence of multiple inequalities in language learning opportunities (Ayres-Bennett and Coussins, 2015; Henderson and Carruthers, In preparation), we show that young people’s experiences identify factors which are beyond the scope of existing language education policy directions, across the devolved regions. We argue that linguistic capacity (CBI/Pearson, 2019) in the UK can only be improved by developing language education policies with due regard for the full range of evidence available: in this case, the ways in which language learning trajectories are experienced by young people.

This research addresses a gap in understanding of young people’s language learning trajectories across three major transitions: from compulsory provision to GCSE level (Age 14-16); from GCSE level to A-Level (Age 16-18); and from upper secondary school to Higher Education study (Post-18). Our overarching aim is to develop a better understanding of decision-making across these key transitions.

This paper reports on quantitative analysis of a cross-sectional survey strand of a major mixed-methods study which investigates Language Policy and Practice across the devolved regions, in relation to foreign, indigenous and community languages. Our research questions are focused on understanding young people’s views and experiences of language learning, accounts of decision-making and the factors influencing positive continuations.

The survey, designed in consultation with pupils and their teachers, documented young people’s views and experiences in five main areas, emerging from the research questions: personal experiences of language learning and teaching; perceptions of the importance of factors influencing continuation decisions; perceptions of languages compared with non-language subjects; and the value of languages. The online survey was completed by a total of 1278 pupils, across 20 secondary-level schools: Year 10 (Age 14); Year 12 (Age 16); and Year 14 (Age 18). This cross-sectional sample allows us to make broad comparisons between the views and experiences of students at key language learning transition points.

Our analyses, completed using SPSS statistics software, provide data relating to demographic, experiential and attitudinal variables, across the five key areas. Since there is relatively little evidence of how young people experience language continuation motivation (Taylor and Marsden, 2014; Coffey, 2018), and social inequalities in languages education policies and practice are poorly understood (Block, 2018), our study provides much needed data in this area. The first phase of analysis produced descriptive statistics enabling comparisons between year groups, by school-type (academically selective or all-ability), and between students who continued to study languages or not at each transition. The second phase of analysis used logistic regression modelling to predict the likelihood of students making positive continuations to GCSE, A-Level and University study. Since this type of analysis allows a range of variables to be taken into account, including demographic variables which are known to influence uptake, we are able to build a better understanding of language continuation.

Our research shows that strategic policy intervention can create appropriate conditions for improving the uptake of languages at upper secondary and higher education levels. Reversing the overall declines in language learning remain a major challenge across the UK and we believe that policy must take account of the full range of evidence available, including the views of young people who are key policy stakeholders.

Our findings offer insights into students’ continuation motivations, and enable us to assess the extent to which existing policies can adequately reverse declining uptake. Our data show that factors relating to enjoyment or interest, and perceptions of difficulty and career ‘utility’ are important in positive continuations. Therefore, existing initiatives are targeting worthwhile areas (albeit with varying degrees of incorporation in policy), including calls to: improve the quality of curriculum delivery; resolve long-standing issues relating to examination content and severe-grading; and raising awareness of the importance of languages in the world of work (Ayres-Bennett and Carruthers, 2019; The British Academy et al., 2020). Perhaps of greatest concern, is the influence of demographic factors, including school type and socio-economic status, which produce serious inequalities in the language learning opportunities afforded to young people. These findings highlight the influence of structural issues beyond the immediate Language Education policy arena. Indeed, similar concerns have been raised in relation to ‘rationalisation’ initiatives in Higher Education, which close languages pathways to some students and in some areas (Ibid.). Our paper concludes by outlining the potential benefits of policy development which considers the full range of evidence available, to meet the challenges of ensuring that young people in the UK are enabled to embrace their potential as language learners.

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Period02 Sep 202103 Sep 2021
Event titleEuropean Conference on Educational Research: null
Event typeConference
LocationGeneva, Switzerland
Degree of RecognitionInternational