Tuesday 21 May 2019


Key findings:

  • From 2010-2018 the number of pupils learning languages at GCSE level in Northern Ireland declined by 19%: with significant falls in French (41%) and German (18%), while Spanish rose by 16%
  • Teachers report difficulty and grading of exams at GCSE level a big reason for the decline  
  • 55% of primary schools surveyed provide some form of language teaching
  • Many teachers would like to see the return of the Primary Modern Language Programme


The number of pupils learning a modern language in Northern Ireland continues to fall, according to a new British Council report which launches today (Tuesday, May 21). 

The first Language Trends Northern Ireland report surveyed over 300 primary and post primary schools and follows previous research into modern language teaching in both England and Wales. 

Spanish is the language most frequently taught in Northern Ireland's schools, followed by French, and then Irish.

The report found that modern language learning is becoming increasingly marginalised within the curriculum, with a significant decline in the number of pupils learning languages at both GCSE and A-Level.

In the eight-year period from 2010-2018, GCSE entries in Northern Ireland dropped by 19 per cent – with a significant decline in both French (41%) and German (18%).  Results were similar at A-level (French: 40%, German: 29%).

Many respondents believed languages were no longer valued in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and the uptake had declined since languages had lost their compulsory status at Key Stage 4.

Other barriers cited for the decline included the perceived level of difficulty of languages at GCSE and A-level. Many of those surveyed felt that GCSE specifications and the off-putting grading system had an impact on both students who aspired for top grades and those simply looking for a pass - with many students opting for what they saw as an ‘easier alternative’.

Further factors included competition from heavily promoted STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) subjects, the closure of university language courses, Brexit and a preference for more ‘practical’ vocational subjects.

At primary level, the report found that just 55 per cent of primary schools surveyed provided some form of language teaching and after excluding voluntary and after-school provision, this figure fell to 33 per cent. 

The main reason given both by primary schools that had never taught a language and by those who had stopped doing so, was a lack of funding (80%) – other reasons included a lack of expertise within the school and the absence of external support.

Unlike in England and Scotland, learning a second language is not a statutory part of the primary school curriculum in Northern Ireland and many teachers surveyed would like to see the return of the Primary Modern Language Programme, which was funded by the Department of Education until 2015.

It’s not all doom and gloom though - the report does highlight some positive developments, with a rise in Spanish by 16 per cent at GCSE. There are also a  number of primary and post primary schools offering more diverse languages such as Mandarin and Arabic - two languages cited in British Council’s 2017 ‘Languages for the Future’ report  which are recognised as crucial to the UK’s long-term competitiveness, especially as the country plans to leave the European Union. 

Other key findings in the report include:

  • Schools in more disadvantaged areas (those schools with higher numbers of pupils on Free School Meals) are more likely to report a lower take-up of languages 
  • Selective schools are more likely to report stable numbers for languages than non-selective
  • There’s a lack of positive messaging around languages - 57% of teachers surveyed felt that there was a lack of awareness in schools of the value of languages for careers 
  • One third (38%) of schools dedicate less than two hours a week to language learning at Key Stage 3, with non-selective schools less likely to dedicate time to languages.
  • Nearly a tenth (9%) of schools do not have any pupils studying languages by Year 11

Jonathan Stewart, Director, British Council Northern Ireland said: “If Northern Ireland is to remain competitive on the international stage, we need far more young people, not fewer, to be learning languages in schools.

“The benefits of learning a language are huge; from boosting job prospects to acquiring the ability to understand and better connect with another culture - so we must therefore make a concerted effort to give language learning back the respect and prominence it deserves.

“At the British Council, we already have lots of ways that schools can help encourage language learning amongst their pupils whether it’s through employing a modern language assistant or partnering with a school in another country.”

Speaking about the report, Professor Janice Carruthers, Professor of French Linguistics at Queen’s University Belfast said: “The challenges are very similar across the UK - however, the context of Northern Ireland is different. Unlike Scotland, Wales and England, we have not yet benefited from any specific initiative or policy to support languages.

“We need a clear message from our devolved government about the importance of languages for key parts of our economy, not least tourism and inward investment. Languages are crucial for cultural understanding, both at home and internationally.

“There is an opportunity in Northern Ireland to address the challenge before uptake falls even further. I hope our devolved government will respond as a matter of urgency.”

According to Lynne Rainey, PwC Student Recruitment Lead, Northern Ireland, learning a language is a skill that must be kept alive.

She said: “She said: “At PwC we currently have over 20 language groups in Northern Ireland - Spanish is our most important language, but we are seeing an increasing need for languages such as Arabic and Mandarin and emerging languages such as Portuguese and Russian. As a result, we have to attract people from outside Northern Ireland.

“Last year, upwards of 30% of all of our roles (not just those requiring a foreign language) were filled by people living outside Northern Ireland. That’s a big statistic and while this is partly a result of skills gaps, it’s also a consequence of a growing firm that is doing many new things that attract people to our business, a business that is working with clients locally, nationally and globally.

“In the context of our global work, I really wish languages were taught to pupils at an earlier age and were made more accessible. From a skills perspective, people here are at a severe disadvantage when working in international markets and it’s a real uphill struggle – we find that people who have language skills are good critical thinkers, can communicate well and are full of creativity, and its vital for us to keep those skills alive.”

The Language Trends Northern Ireland report will launch at Belfast’s ICC this afternoon (Tuesday, May 21) – with panel speakers including report author Teresa Tinsley, Director, Alcantara Communications; Professor Janice Carruthers, Professor of French Linguistics at Queen’s University Belfast and Leadership Fellow in Modern Languages with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Lynne Rainey, Partner, Student Recruitment Lead, Northern Ireland,  PwC.

For more information and to read the full report visit: https://nireland.britishcouncil.org/programmes/education/language-trends... or follow #LanguageTrendsNI on Twitter.

The British Council is the UK’s leading cultural relations organisation. For more information on current opportunities in Northern Ireland, visit nireland.britishcouncil.org, or follow on Twitter: @BCouncil_NI

Notes to Editor

About Language Trends Northern Ireland

Language Trends, which surveys schools anonymously on their languages provision, has run in England since 2003 and in Wales since 2015, but this is the first time that the British Council has conducted research in Northern Ireland.

This report is based on responses to online surveys sent to primary school principals and post-primary heads of modern languages during February and March 2019. A total of 218 responses were received from primary schools and 100 from post-primary schools, representing response rates of 25 per cent and 51 per cent respectively.

British Council Northern Ireland is very grateful to the Department of Education and to members of an advisory group drawing together representatives from university language departments, initial teacher education, NICILT and CCEA. 

For further information please contact: 

Claire McAuley, Communications Manager: T +44 (0) 28 9019 2224 | M +44 (0) 7856524504 Claire.McAuley@britishcouncil.org Twitter: @BCouncil_NI, Facebook – www.facebook.com/britishcouncilnorthernireland 

About the British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We work with over 100 countries in the fields of arts and culture, English language, education and civil society. Last year we reached over 65 million people directly and 731 million people overall including online, broadcasts and publications. We make a positive contribution to the countries we work with – changing lives by creating opportunities, building connections and engendering trust. Founded in 1934 we are a UK charity governed by Royal Charter and a UK public body. We receive 15 per cent core funding grant from the UK government. britishcouncil.org


See also