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Why learning another language is still a sign of privilege

13 March 2019 (The Conversation)

There is a class divide in language education in England. Young people from working-class backgrounds in socially deprived areas are far less likely to choose, or have the opportunity, to study languages at secondary school, than their more affluent peers.

Foreign language learning is at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium – recent BBC analysis shows a drop of between 30% and 50% of students taking GCSE language courses in the worst affected areas in England.

But this is not a new claim. Researchers started to highlight a class divide emerging just after the Labour Party changed languages from being compulsory to optional at GCSE in 2007. Once languages no longer needed to feature on league tables, many schools dramatically reduced the number of students sitting language exams.

The Language Trends 2015 report found direct correlations between socioeconomic disadvantage and restricted access to languages. It was found that the schools in the most socially deprived areas excluded 17% of pupils from language study in key stage three (11-14 years-old) and 44% of pupils at key stage four (14-16 years-old).

Recent findings suggest things haven’t improved – 76% of students in selective schools sat a GCSE in a language compared with only 38% in sponsored academies. There is also a geographical divide appearing, with young people living in London and the south-east more likely to take a language at GCSE. All other areas in England have recorded a decline – and the north-east has been the worst affected.

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