The majority of primary schools in England stopped teaching languages during the first lockdown, research suggests.
Covid-19 has had a “negative impact” on language learning for pupils in primary and secondary schools, according to the British Council’s Language Trends 2021 report.
The survey, of more than 1,500 teachers from schools across England, suggests language teaching was discontinued at 53% of primary schools during the lockdown, from March 23 to late June 2020.
One in five primary schools continued to suspend language teaching in January and February this year due to Covid-19, the report found.
Teachers in state secondary schools reported that two in five pupils in Years 7-9 did not engage with language learning during the first lockdown.
By comparison, teachers in the independent sector reported that one in 10 pupils did not engage with language learning during the first lockdown.
The report found a social class divide in the impact of Covid-19 on language learning, with schools in deprived areas feeling the effects more acutely.
It suggests 71% of state schools in the most deprived areas reported a ‘big negative impact’ on language learning, compared to 52% of state schools in the most affluent areas.
By comparison, just 16% of independent schools reported a ‘big negative impact’.
The research also found the pandemic has contributed to the continued and significant reduction in international engagement opportunities.
These include activities such as partnering with a school abroad, involvement in international projects and hosting a language assistant, as well as trips abroad.
Nearly two in three (64%) of teachers in primary schools and 38% of staff in state secondary schools reported no international activities within their school, compared to 46% and 11% respectively in 2018.
At independent schools just 11% reported no international activities, the survey found.
Vicky Gough, schools adviser at British Council, 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.”
Report author Dr Ian Collen said: “The most disadvantaged pupils are the most likely to have been negatively affected by the impact of Covid-19, experiencing greater disruption to their language learning and fewer international opportunities.
“Looking to the future, schools should consider giving more curriculum time to languages, as well as more opportunities to use languages in real life such as visits abroad.”
Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Schools have moved mountains over the past 18 months to preserve a high-quality education for young people. There is no doubt that these efforts have shielded pupils from the worst effects of the pandemic.
“But there has been significant disruption to education resulting in a necessary blend of face-to-face and remote teaching over the course of the year and this will have had an impact on language learning.”
He added: “It is incredibly important that the Government provides schools with sufficient funding to bring proper depth and breadth to the recovery work that they are now engaged in.
“We are dismayed at the amount of funding allocated so far, as it is nowhere near enough for the task in hand. Much of the talk about recovery has been about English and maths, this report highlights how important it is for the full range of subjects to be included in the recovery work.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The revised subject content for French, German and Spanish GCSEs aims to encourage more students to take up these important subjects, broadening their horizons and improving their employment opportunities. Ofqual has also adjusted grading standards in GCSE French and German following a review.”
“The EBacc remains vital in giving all children the same chance to succeed in the core academic subjects, and we have already exceeded our 75% uptake ambition across four of the five subject groups.”