Nick Gibb is wrong about modern foreign languages

Boosting foreign language GCSE entries is not the way to improve our country’s language skills – but there is a better way, insists David Harbourne

The Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, wants 90% of 16-year-olds to take a foreign language GCSE.

In a recent House of Commons debate on the EBacc, he said this is necessary because “some 77% of employers say that they need more employees with foreign languages”. I take the figure with a pinch of salt, because this would mean over 3.8 million employers are clamouring for better language skills – frankly, I don’t believe it.

Nevertheless, I am instinctively in favour of languages for all. I did French O-level at school and scraped a pass. I learned French properly when I had the chance to live and work in Paris, and became a convert to the cause.

However, I’m emphatically not in favour of Nick Gibb’s crude target.

In 2015, there were nearly 320,000 GCSE entries in French, German, Spanish and other modern languages. Just under half the cohort (49.3%) took at least one foreign language GCSE, with a bias towards high-attainment students.

To meet Nick Gibb’s 90% target, 225,000 young people would have to drop one of their other subjects and take a foreign language instead. To put it another way, the target will limit access to creative and technical subjects such as art, music, design and technology and engineering, particularly for mid- and low-attainment students. There is no evidence that this would improve their life chances.

Furthermore, GCSEs aren’t enough to make us fluent. If they were, we’d already be a nation of confident linguists, and employers wouldn’t be complaining of a shortage.

The more important question is whether people continue with their studies after completing GCSEs. And the sad truth is – they don’t.

This table shows the number of GCSE entries in 2013, and the number of A-level entries two years later.

GCSE entries 2013 A-level entries 2015 2015 A-level entries as % of 2013 GCSE entries
French 165,127 9,332 5.7%
German 60,649 3,791 6.3%
Spanish 85,954 7,941 9.2%
Other modern languages 30,604 9,039 29.5%
Total 342,334 30,103 8.8%


The figures tell a worrying story. Only one student in eleven carried on with a foreign language after completing their GCSEs.

The 90% GCSE target would do absolutely nothing to tackle this problem. If the question is, “how do we boost the country’s language skills?” the answer isn’t “by making an extra 225,000 16 year olds take a foreign language GCSE”.

In my humble opinion, the real answer rests in teaching languages well from an early age, as they do in many countries around the world. I’ve been told that this is idealistic – and it wasn’t meant as a compliment. But I genuinely believe that we should make a long-term commitment to boosting language teaching in early years and primary education. If we do, there will – eventually – be a natural increase in the numbers of young people choosing languages at 14+.

In the meantime, the government should abandon its 90% target and focus instead on boosting the take up of foreign language A-levels. It’s by far the more sensible option.

The views expressed are those of David Harbourne, and do not necessarily represent the official position of The Edge Foundation

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  1. So true. Business does not value language at the expense of other skills. With so many adult bi- and tri – lingualalist having moved to England from Europe, the adult job market is swamped with experienced adult graduate linguists.
    The growth areas in young graduate employment don’t include MFL. And David’s right too that GCSE level skills are not enough. GCSE computing is in a similar place, below any baseline measure of competence in that discipline.
    Assisting talented children to step up to A level and degree is part of the right approach, but so must be immersion opportunities in summer of year 12 – funding 6 weeks in target language countries/homes would be an incredible next step, lower level erasmus-type scholarship.

  2. Jonathan Newton

    I think the nature of the GCSE and A level needs to be changed. You need to be virtually fluent for a top grade at A level; you can successfully pass with limited language knowledge at GCSE. Students are put off after the hard slog of GCSE and don’t continue. Weaker students find abstract grammar concepts too tricky to master. Recent reforms have taken us backwards.