Dear Parents and Girls,

With the EU Referendum only weeks away, there was surely an irony in the decision last week by England’s third largest exam board, OCR, to cease offering GCSEs and A Levels in French, German or Spanish.

The announcement led to much debate in the press – see, for example, the Telegraph article by my GDST colleague, Hilary French

Although many people share our view that the decline in students studying European languages is something to be mourned, solutions to the problem are complex and challenging. Writing in the Times Educational Supplement, Dr Bernard Trafford points out how many students make highly pragmatic choices about A Levels:

‘For the ambitious A Level student aiming for a top university, a language A Level can appear a high-risk option. Boards award fewer top grades in languages: the range of live oral and aural tests within the qualifications provide a greater scope than other subjects for coming a cropper in the exam; and there have been numerous concerns about the quality of marking. Given that young people, particularly the most ambitious, are canny in planning their trajectory towards higher education, it can hardly be surprising that many eschew languages in favour of subjects whose outcomes are more predictable’.

He also talks about what he calls, ‘the British disease’ – an inherent dislike and distrust of ‘talking foreign.’

Against the national trend, we have invested significantly in modern foreign languages at BHHS over the past few years and have increased the amount of time girls spend learning them. Language lessons in KS3 and 4 have increased by a third and we have introduced new MFL diplomas in Sixth Form to encourage girls who are not taking MFL A Levels to continue to study languages. Every girl must study a language at GCSE and we also insist on all girls studying Latin for the first two years, with healthy numbers continuing it up to GCSE and A Level.       

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We made the decision two years ago to replace German with Spanish as the main language for study alongside French at BHHS. This was based on what girls wanted to learn. Significant changes in the new GCSE specifications and in the requirements of universities have meant that the demands on the curriculum (particularly in the core subjects) have increased substantially in terms of content. We firmly believe that, in order to make good progress towards success at GCSE, it is no longer appropriate to have girls study three modern languages at KS3 nor to have a ‘carousel’ approach.

However, we recognise that some girls will wish to study two languages at KS4 and we therefore offer the opportunity for these girls to take up the additional second language from Y9 (i.e. either French or Spanish) as one of their options for GCSE.

German continues to run at GCSE currently for those girls who have studied it from Y7. In the future we envisage that very few girls will want to pick up German in Y10 given that they will not have studied it previously. However, should there be a demand for German, we will offer a course in Years 10 and 11.

At A Level, we currently offer French, Spanish and German, alongside Diplomas in all three languages. We also offer Saturday morning Italian taster classes.

It is a question of balance: demands on students at GCSE and A Level are more intense than at any point over the past 30 years; however, to move away from studying European languages would represent an unacceptable narrowing of a curriculum that is intended to give our girls an all-round, first-class education.