Jenny Scott, British Council’s County Director for Wales shares her thoughts about the current situation for modern foreign languages in Wales, and the trends five years of Language Trends Wales reports has brought to light.
When we produced the first Language Trends Wales  in 2015, modern foreign languages (MFL) had been in decline in Wales – and across the UK - for more than a decade. There was also an absence of a clear policy approach to reversing this decline and a sense of inevitability about the progressive marginalisation of MFL within Welsh schools. Long-term there has been a persistent negative shift in perceptions of the value of language skills. Despite compelling evidence of the importance of languages for trade, business and research, other subjects are perceived as more useful.
Global Futures has had a positive impact in some schools, but it’s not enough to reverse the decline and factors such as timetabling options, insufficient curriculum time, the low value placed on language skills and a lack of accountability for increasing take-up continue to constrain progress.
This year’s survey also highlights the complexity of supporting effectively MFL in Wales. While Welsh-medium primary schools are embracing international languages at a faster pace than their English-medium counterparts, teachers are reporting that efforts to promote Welsh in secondary schools have sometimes come at the expense of MFL, failing to tap into the potential to develop Wales as a truly multilingual nation.
However, we are seeing some glimmers of hope. Over the past 5 years, one persistent complaint from teachers has been that MFL exams are more difficult in comparison with other subjects. In November 2019, Qualification Wales announced that they had asked WJEC to review the MFL GCSE specifications. This mirrored a similar review by Ofqual, which found that there was a sufficiently strong case to adjust grading standards in GCSE French and German in England.
Also, despite concerns about resources and training there is evidence that more primary schools are embracing international languages  in innovative ways and it was especially positive to note that the Minister for Education has recently reiterated the importance of including MFL in primary school curriculum.
Equally, the conclusion of this year’s report is that the severity of the decline in secondary schools, combined with the need to develop a new subject at primary level, require incentives and support beyond the current scale and scope of Global Futures. We are pleased to note the intention to refresh Global Futures and hope that this will include consultation with schools and organisations that are working so hard to improve the situation for international languages in Wales.
The British Council has a long-standing commitment to promoting language learning as a means of facilitating intercultural exchange around the world, reflected in our promotion of, and advocacy for, the teaching and learning of international languages in the UK. We know that an ability to communicate in an additional language makes young people more interculturally skilled and more likely to study abroad or volunteer overseas – opening up significant life and career opportunities.
In order to engage with the world effectively, Wales needs young people with the intercultural and linguistic skills to do business with and positively influence the rest of the world. This need is all the more pressing in the context of Brexit, which creates a new imperative for Wales to reach out globally. The continued decline of MFL in our schools will harm Wales’ ability to do that successfully in the long term.
To end, a thank you to the teachers and schools who have done the survey over the past five years, and have helped us to understand the issues on the ground. It is through these responses that we’re able to provide accurate analysis and help make meaningful change with policy makers.
Language Trends survey 2014/15 produced by British Council Wales and CfBT Education Trust
[2 ] See also British Council Wales: Developing multilingualism in primary schools in Wales: an impact study