Languages Learning Under Threat from League Tables

Language education in secondary schools continues to decline under the pressure of league tables according to new reports on language education just released in England and the United States. The studies add to the weight of evidence that league tables narrow the school curriculum and student learning. They suggest that the efforts to expand language learning in Australia are likely to be impeded by the imminent publication of school results.

A report by the UK National Centre for Languages found that the proportion of state maintained schools in England in which more than 50% of Year 11 students study a foreign language has declined from 53% in 2005 to 43% in 2009. For Year 10 participation, the proportion declined from 48 to 40% in the same period. One-third of state schools have reduced lesson time for languages at the junior secondary level.

The centre has carried out the survey annually since 2002 to track developments in language provision and take up. It says that language learning in English schools has been in continuous decline since the survey first began.

The report found that the continuing decline in languages learning it is not due to disaffection from students but from the structure of post-14 education and its link to league tables. It said that the pressure on schools to lift their results on league tables was a key factor in the decline. Schools feel under pressure to concentrate on core subjects such as English and maths so they do not slip down league tables.

The report said that the pressure of league tables was limiting the effectiveness of a wide range of national and local initiatives to motivate students and improve languages take up.

The survey also found a conspicuous gap in language learning in state and independent fee paying schools. Languages learning is least popular in schools with a higher than average number of pupils on free school meals and most popular in private and grammar schools. In 60% of comprehensive schools, three-quarters of students are not taking a language at age 14. In contrast, the vast majority of students in the private sector study a language up to age 16 and in 82% of independent schools it is compulsory to do so.

In the United States, thousands of public schools have stopped teaching foreign languages in the last decade, according to a government-sponsored survey conducted by the Centre for Applied Linguistics. The percentage of elementary and middle schools offering foreign language instruction decreased significantly from 1997 to 2008: from 31% to 25% of all elementary schools and from 75% to 58% of all middle schools. However, the teaching of foreign languages in high schools stayed relatively steady over the same period.

Approximately one-third of public elementary and secondary schools with language programs reported that their foreign language instruction had been affected by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) school accountability legislation. The NCLB’s focus on mathematics and reading instruction had drawn resources away from foreign languages because they are not included in the law’s accountability measures.

The survey results also revealed issues of unequal access to foreign language instruction. A large number of elementary and middle school students in rural or low socio-economic status schools do not have the opportunity to study foreign language at all. In addition, the percentage of private elementary schools offering foreign language instruction (51%) was more than three times that of public elementary schools (15%).

Languages education in Australia is not yet part of the learning experience of all students, in all schools, in all parts of the country according to the national council of education ministers. It has taken a range of initiatives in recent years to expand languages learning. However, the impact of school reporting and accountability measures on language education in England and the United States suggests that these initiatives are unlikely to achieve expectations because the imminent publication of league tables of school results in Australia will generate the same pressures to reduce time spent in the classroom on languages in favour of more time on literacy and numeracy.

These new studies add to the abundant evidence that reporting school results and league tables narrows school curriculum and student learning.

A major review of primary education in England published last year by Cambridge University criticised the dominance of a rigid testing regime and its distorting effect on the curriculum. It said that children were receiving an education that was “fundamentally deficient”. It was neither broad nor balanced, and it valued memorization and recall over understanding and inquiry.

An extensive review of research published by the US Urban Institute in 2008 on the impact of accountability systems in the US on classroom practice found that time devoted to non-tested subjects such as art, social studies and foreign languages appears to be sacrificed in favour of tested subjects.

A study by the US Centre on Education Policy in 2008 showed that since the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted in 2001 to require more testing and reporting for reading and maths, average class time in US primary schools on reading increased by 47% and by 37% for maths. Time on social studies, science, art and music, gym and recess was cut by an average of 145 minutes a week. Recess time was cut by nearly 30%.

A report published last year by the US Government Accountability Office found that the time spent on arts education had declined under the No Child Left Behind Act and that the declines were larger in primary schools with high percentages of low-income or minority students. The average reduction time at schools with a high percentage of low-income students reported was 49 minutes per week compared to 31 minutes per week in schools with lower percentages of these students.

The provision of a broad, well-rounded education is now under threat in Australia as never before with the publication of school results and the inevitable league tables. Languages education as well as science, history, drama and music and other non-tested subjects are likely to receive much less time in the classroom. Julia Gillard’s legacy will be a narrowed education for many students.

Trevor Cobbold

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