Language learning hit hard by pandemic – British Council report

Covid-19 has had a ‘negative impact’ on language learning at schools in England, according to a new report from the British Council. Language Trends 2021 surveyed teachers at more than 1500 primary, secondary and independent schools across England. The report, which has been published annually by the British Council for nearly twenty years, gathers information about language teaching and learning in England.

Language Trends 2021 found that during the first national lockdown, between March and June 2020, language teaching was discontinued at more than half (53 per cent) of primary schools in England. By the time of the later lockdown which took place in January and February 2021, one in five primary schools continued to suspend language teaching. Meanwhile at state secondary schools, two in five pupils in Key Stage 3 did not engage with language learning during the first national lockdown. The report highlights concerns that this lost learning will further impact the uptake of languages at GCSE level - entries for language GCSEs have dropped by around 40 per cent since 2003, the last year in which they were compulsory.

The report found a worrying and clear social divide in the impact of Covid-19 on language learning, with schools in deprived areas feeling the effects more acutely. 71 per cent of state schools in the most deprived areas reported a ‘big negative impact’ on language learning and 52 per cent of state schools in the most affluent areas reported the same. Just 16 per cent of independent schools reported a ‘big negative impact’.

Perhaps inevitably schools also reported a significant drop in international engagement activities, such as trips abroad and partnering with schools in other countries, although these kinds of activities were already on a downward trend prior to the pandemic. 64 per cent of primary schools and 38 per cent of state secondary schools reported no international activities within their school (compared to 46 per cent and 11 per cent respectively in 2018). At independent schools just 11 per cent reported no international activities (up from 3 per cent in 2018). Furthermore, the report found very few virtual international activities have been initiated or maintained.

A positive identified by the report is increased capacity to utitlise technology to deliver and enhance learning. Nearly all teachers surveyed reported feeling better prepared to provide online lessons during 2021 than they had been in 2020. Resourcing and opportunities have also increased for online, language-specific Continuing Professional Development (CPD). 32 per cent of primary teachers, 60 per cent of teachers in independent schools and 67 per cent of teachers in state secondary schools have taken part in online CPD during the past year.

Commenting on the report, Vicky Gough, British Council schools adviser, said: ‘The past year has been extremely challenging for schools and these findings highlight the significant impact of Covid-19 on the teaching and learning of languages. As education begins to recover from the pandemic, it’s essential that schools prioritise language learning and look to build back international opportunities and connections. The benefits of having language skills and some understanding of other cultures cannot be overstated, particularly as the UK renegotiates its place on the world stage.’

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