Belfast Telegraph

Belfast school has no language pupils at GCSE or A-level as interest slides across Northern Ireland

A north Belfast school has revealed that it currently has no students studying languages at A-level or GCSE. Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA
A north Belfast school has revealed that it currently has no students studying languages at A-level or GCSE. Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

A north Belfast school has revealed that it currently has no students studying languages at A-level or GCSE.

It comes as a new report published today shows that the number of pupils learning a modern language here continues to plummet.

The British Council's first Language Trends Northern Ireland report surveyed over 300 primary and post-primary schools.

It found that Spanish is now the language most frequently taught in local schools, followed by French and Irish.

In the eight-year period from 2010, GCSE entries in Northern Ireland dropped by 19% with significant falls in both French (41%) and German (18%), while Spanish rose by 16%.

The results were similar at A-level with the number of students taking French declining by 40% while German fell by 29%.

A number of primary and post-primary schools are now offering more diverse languages such as Mandarin and Arabic, which are recognised as crucial to the UK's long-term competitiveness, especially as the country plans to leave the EU.

Many respondents said they believed languages were no longer valued here and the rest of the UK.

Other barriers cited for the decline included the perceived level of difficulty of languages at GCSE and A-level.

Belfast Boys' Model School offers French and Spanish to pupils in Year 8, 9 and 10.

But head of modern languages at the school, Linda Parra, said: "We currently don't have any pupils at A-level or GCSE studying languages.

"It's not like the pupils don't have an interest; in Year 8 they're really keen and the Modern Language Club for Years 9 and 10 is really popular, but they only do an hour of languages a week, so it would have to be a very a brave pupil to take languages on at GCSE. For me the main worry is grading at GCSE and its level of difficulty. Pupils are discouraged from taking languages as the main priority is for them to pass in maths and English.

"I believe children should be learning languages at primary school - even just 10 minutes a week - so that when they come here they are more familiar and have built up some of the basic vocabulary."

Paul Porter, head of modern languages at Belfast Royal Academy, believes subjects such as French and German are now "fighting a losing battle" against heavily promoted STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects.

"Students are now taking subjects that are easier to pass and no longer see the relevance and value in languages," he said.

They know the language courses are more rigorous in terms of their demands, which is turning them off."

At primary level the report found just 55% of primary schools surveyed provided some form of language teaching.

Unlike in England and Scotland, learning a second language is not a statutory part of the primary school curriculum here.

But Lynne Rainey, PwC student recruitment lead in Northern Ireland, says learning a language is a skill that must be kept alive.

"At PwC we currently have over 20 language groups. Spanish is our most important language, but we are seeing an increasing need for languages such as Arabic and Mandarin and emerging languages such as Portuguese and Russian," she said.

"We tend to have to recruit people from outside Northern Ireland and 40% of our roles are currently filled by people not from here.

"That's a big statistic and there is definitely a gap in skills, especially in non-traditional languages such as Arabic or Mandarin."

Jonathan Stewart, director of the British Council Northern Ireland, believes that if the region is to remain competitive globally, far more young people need to be learning languages.

He added: "The benefits of learning a language are huge; from boosting job prospects to acquiring the ability to understand and better connect with another culture, so we must therefore make a concerted effort to give language learning back the respect and prominence it deserves."

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