Foreign languages are in decline as a subject choice, but not all schools are following that curve. Absolutely Education spoke to three independents that go out of their way to inspire and develop young linguists

The teaching of foreign languages in the UK is in a parlous state. Half of Year 10 students were not studying a second language in 2021. While Brexit sometimes gets blamed, this is part of a longer-term decline. Indeed, applicants for GCSEs in modern foreign languages have dropped by over 40% since 2003. So why don’t more young people learn to communicate in another tongue? There is certainly a perception that languages are hard subjects, so perhaps young people don’t want to risk lower grades. There may also be some confusion about their ‘relevance’ and application to future careers.

Thankfully, independent schools have a far better track record than national averages, with approaches that are designed to inspire and motivate young people. We spoke to three schools that are making modern foreign languages a passport to success.

The Leys
At The Leys in Cambridge there are plenty of added-value experiences for linguists, such as trips and immersive extras in areas such as cookery, sport and the arts

The Leys School

Located in Cambridge – among the UK’s most multilingual cities – The Leys takes language learning seriously. While French, German and Spanish are on the curriculum, the possibilities don’t stop there. “We also offer the opportunity to learn other languages – for example Mandarin, Cantonese, Italian and Russian – either via a native-speaking tutor or independently,” says Head of Modern Foreign Languages Maxine Wyatt.

At The Leys, there are specialist language classrooms as well as a fully equipped language Lab, plus tools for independent learning. “Our modern web-based software, Sanako Connect, enables face-to-face, remote and hybrid teaching,” adds Wyatt. This software enables pupil self-evaluation and assists speaking and pronunciation proficiency. Native-speaking Language Assistants are on hand throughout the language learning journey to help pupils hone their speech and understanding.

Recognising the need to inspire young people with the broader possibilities of what they are studying, The Leys ensures lots of added-value experiences. There’s are trips to France, Germany and Spain for language learners. While there, students enjoy an immersive range of extras in the target language – including cooking, sport activities, city tours and museum trails

Maxine Wyatt says young people relish the horizon-broadening potential and see the value and impact of what they are doing as going beyond speaking another tongue. “Leysian pupils are fully aware of the importance and value of language learning. Every opportunity is taken to discuss national, European and global issues in the target language,” she says. “Talks and debates by outside speakers and in-school experts are also developed.”

The Leys

At James Allen’s Girls’ School, there’s a sense of the huge value speaking foreign languages brings – and pupils are encouraged to take risks and make mistakes in class

James Allen’s Girls’ School (JAGS)

At JAGS in Dulwich, building engagement is seen as critical. Head of Modern Foreign Languages Cristina Sanchez says it comes down to pupils having a sense of the value of languages for their futures, as well as a perception that these are subjects in which they can have autonomy and self-efficacy. “Our annual exam results and success beyond school are testimony of this,” she says.

The school offers its girls GCSE and A level in French, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Spanish. It also supports bilingual pupils adding qualifications in their home languages – currently these include Chinese, Portuguese, Turkish and Gujarati. Beyond the broad choice, it’s the sense of excitement and atmosphere that sets students up to succeed. “Language learning carries on beyond the classroom walls, with a diverse programme of extra-curricular activities and enrichment programmes,” says Sanchez. “The atmosphere in the classroom induces language learning in a supportive, low-anxiety context, where learners can take risks and make mistakes.”

She says it helps that JAGS is a culturally diverse community, and in one of the world’s great diverse cities. Classroom environments support varied learning styles, with audio-visual equipment and interactive games a part of each lesson. Pupils can also access digital subscriptions to keep them on top of grammar, vocabulary, spelling, listening skills and syntax. “Students can work autonomously in the areas of the curriculum that they believe needs more practice at a time that suits them best.”

Co-curricular activities are championed, with residential trips, cultural events and workshops, as well as collaborations with other schools. “The list is long, but the impact is the same: a boost in motivation and a celebration of the wealth and richness of cultural diversity in our school community and beyond,” says Sanchez.

She adds that JAGS girls understand the wider impact of what they are doing, seeing it as a skill for life as well as career. “Multiculturality is the norm in cosmopolitan cities, with diversity and inclusion at the heart of many institutions and companies,” says Sanchez. And language learning helps all learning in her book: “Learning a foreign language strengthens literacy, analytical skills, public speaking, critical thinking, and cultural understanding. An added bonus is that once you have learnt one foreign language, the subsequent ones are faster and easier to learn”.


Foreign languages – the state of play
Foreign languages are incredibly popular at Tonbridge, and practical Sixth Form programmes that run alongside A level maintain engagement at 16+, says Will Law (pictured)

Tonbridge School

Tonbridge School bucks every national trend for modern foreign languages and has been described as having one of the best departments in the country. The school notes that its Modern Languages Department sits: ‘physically and spiritually at the heart of the school’. Traditionally, the second most popular degree chosen by Tonbridge leavers is either languages or languages in combination with another subject.

The Department is led by Will Law, also Head of French. He is frank about some of the broader challenges modern languages face in a UK climate of student loans and a competitive jobs market. “Students are increasingly interested in, perhaps obsessed by, a sense of utility. They are looking for routes that will allow them to get jobs, make money, be successful, and that’s understandable.”

The school offers French, German, Spanish and Mandarin as its key choices but supports students interested other languages. Italian, Japanese and Russian tutors regularly visit to give lessons at all levels and Tonbridge also works to assist other student language interests when they arise.

Alongside all the traditional and modern language teaching tools and aids you’d expect, Will Law says the department puts as much into the mix as it can to bring language teaching to life and broaden the context. “We deliberately try and stuff the topic that we teach full of cultural insights,” he says. This might include informal studies of films, stories and short texts. They also encourage boys to delve deeper culturally as watchers and listeners, be it sports reports, news or documentaries. “It’s guided by and curated by their own curiosities and interests.” Tonbridge parents are hugely supportive – often expressing regret about their own failure to continue studying languages – and many boys go on to A level and degree level. (Students here have an impressive track record of acceptance to Oxford and Cambridge modern language courses.)  

A gamechanger for Tonbridge has been introducing additional Sixth Form programmes alongside A level. This means boys struggling with subject choices – for instance, deciding they need to focus on sciences – no longer need say adieu to languages. The French DELF, and equivalent-standard courses in all four curriculum languages, count on UCAS forms and can be used in conjunction with an application for a variety of combination degrees. Focused on speaking, writing and listening, these practical qualifications are recognised by business the world over, so rewarding and boost for the CV.  This programme means that, for instance, one third of students starting A levels at Tonbridge this year are continuing with a language – an impressive statistic.

As you’d expect, Will Law and the team still work hard to encourage potential linguists to see taking languages to degree level as a life and career-enhancing option. “The transferable skills wrapped up in learning languages are useful in broader contexts,” says Law. “In very few other subjects will they have to construct essays with so much precision and attention to detail.” Then, too, there is the value of languages beyond what they teach formally. “We’ve got quite good at helping boys to illuminate that pathway through their studies. The boys know that if they’re interested, and they stick at modern languages, there’s considerable pay off subsequently – and for their whole life, not just their studies.”

Tonbridge School

Further reading: Making foreign language learning more attractive to students