Schools failing on second languages in multicultural Britain

Research finds schools are failing to integrate pupils who speak English as an additional language

Researchers have raised concerns over the lack of foreign languages being taught in schools. PA
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Schools in England are "worryingly" failing to provide comprehensive policies for second languages, new research has revealed.

Only three in every 500 schools have whole-school policies which address foreign languages, English usage and integrate pupils who speak English as an additional language (EAL), the study has found.

The study of almost 1,000 secondary schools, by researchers at the University of Cambridge, questions many schools’ claims to being ‘inclusive’ spaces that value the linguistic diversity of their communities.

It has found that language learning, and an appreciation of different languages, is being deprioritised, conflicting with the government's target for 90 per cent of pupils to study a language to GCSE level by 2025.

It comes as 20 per cent of pupils in England typically speak a different language at home.

The author of the report, Karen Forbes, associate professor in second language education at the University of Cambridge, told The National she was surprised there were so few policies.

"There is a need for it and we hope this will open up a discussion," she said. "It is very worrying when some schools can have up to 50 different languages represented in the same school. In London some schools can have 70 per cent of pupils speaking a different language and almost all schools will have at least one student who speaks a different language.

"Schools are putting across that they are multicultural but there is not really the evidence of what that means in practice."

The study examined how schools tackle issues relating to languages: including pupils’ use and acquisition of English; the status of modern languages in the curriculum; and schools’ attitudes towards home and community languages.

It found that only six out of 998 secondary schools published dedicated school-wide policies on languages.

While most schools did have some specific language-related policies, these were often isolated, unclear and inconsistent, it found, particularly on key issues such as supporting EAL learners, or the status of community languages like Polish and Urdu.

“It’s surprising that so few schools seem to have systematic policies concerning language education and language use," Ms Forbes said.

“A major reason is probably is that school leaders just don’t have time to devise a unified approach on linguistic diversity. But language is fundamental to how students learn, conceptualise ideas, and process information.

"The absence of clear policies is very worrying, especially for EAL students.”

Writing in the British Educational Research Journal, the authors claim that the absence of joined-up language strategies could pose particular challenges for England’s 1.7 million EAL students.

Only 6 per cent of state schools, and 15 per cent of schools overall, had explicit EAL policies, it has found.

The researchers said they have encountered anecdotal evidence that some EAL students’ experiences are disjointed as a result.

Although one in 10 state schools in the sample had EAL student populations exceeding 40 per cent of the total, most only mentioned languages in passing, and usually within broader policies, the researchers said.

In 33 schools, the researchers found that EAL was explicitly categorised as a “special educational need”, contradicting the government’s own code of practice on special educational needs and disabilities.

Ms Forbes and her team are now going to work with a small group of schools to develop a template which could help school leaders to develop a joined-up language policy.

"We are hoping the study will start a discussion and raise awareness," she said.

"We are now going to work with some schools and help them find a solution."

The study also raised concerns about how far language learning and multilingualism are encouraged within the curriculum.

Presently, modern foreign languages are mandatory to Key Stage 3 (age 14) and the government only encourages their study to GCSE through the English Baccalaureate.

The study found about 65 per cent of independent schools in the sample regarded language study to GCSE as compulsory, but only a quarter of state schools “required” or “encouraged” this.

Updated: January 19, 2024, 12:01 AM