23 SES 04 A, Education and Political Systems
UK citizens, compared with the EU average, are more likely to report that they found lessons at school to be the most effective way to learn a language (European Commission, 2012, p. 108). However, they are amongst the least likely to report themselves as competent or confident users of a second language when compared with their EU neighbours (Ibid., p. 30-40). The perception of English as a global lingua franca, and the accompanying rhetoric of ‘English is enough’ (Lanvers and Coleman, 2017), serve to entrench the notion of the British as notoriously poor language learners (Coleman, 2009). Some argue that the reputation of other nations as motivated and proficient linguists stems from their desire to become strong English speakers. Macaro (2008) proposes that ‘all other European countries (apart from Ireland) are learning English as an L2’ (p. 105). Although the data shows that they are not only learning English: just over 50% of students in upper secondary education across the EU learn two or more languages (EURYDICE, 2017, p.166). More than 90% of young Europeans, compared to 50% of UK students, continue to study a language at this level (Ibid.). The appetite for language learning appears to be lower amongst UK teenagers than their other European counterparts.
Close examination of the education policy context shows that the downward trend in language learning in the UK cannot be simply ascribed to individual young people’s aspirations. The decision to remove the statutory (modern) language requirement at upper secondary level (post-14), part of the then Labour government’s policy to improve flexibility and choice for schools and individual learners (Pring, 2005) began a decline in uptake which endured over many years. The increasingly neoliberal educational culture, characterised by an emphasis on performativity and accountability (Lingard, 2014), influenced school and pupil level decisions about language learning and contributed to the steep and consistent decline in popularity of modern languages which were ‘perceived’ as more difficult than other subjects (Gill, 2017; Tinsley and Dolezal, 2018). Education was one of the social policy areas devolved to the administrations in Northern Ireland (NI), Scotland and Wales in the early 21st Century, whilst authority over education policy for England resided in Westminster (Birrell and Heenan, 2013). The result is significant jurisdictional variation in how language education policies (Ayres-Bennett and Carruthers, 2019) are developed and enacted (Ball, Maguire and Braun, 2012). Within this complex policy landscape the extent to which young people, across the devolved jurisdictions, experience genuine choice in relation to language learning is very poorly understood.
In the context of Brexit the UK’s languages capacity is a recognised cause for concern, with several chapters in a recent volume dedicated to understanding its related challenges (Kelly, 2018). It is timely to reconsider the linguistic challenges that the UK will undoubtedly face in its relations with other nations within and beyond the EU at this time of significant political instability. The crisis of language learning in UK schools is well documented and serious inequities in access to language learning were identified in 2014 by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages. Multiple structural barriers to equitable and effective provision of language learning opportunities for all young people at each stage of education have been identified (Cambridge Public Policy Strategic Research Initiative, 2015). This research seeks to understand how these barriers impact on young people’s experiences of navigating the landscape of language learning and their motivations for continuing to study languages.
 The term used to describe the process of the UK leaving the EU
This research addresses the significant gap in our understanding of the perspectives of young people and their teachers in relation to the processes of decision-making around language learning in NI. The research questions which guide this research relate to three main areas: language (education) policy in the devolved regions; the provision and practice of language learning and assessment; and the future of language policy, provision and practice. The overarching aims are to better understand the extent of genuine choice experienced within the system and how structural barriers constrain individual and institutional decision-making. Areas where appropriate intervention has the potential to improve agency and choice are identified, particularly in relation to language learning and motivation to continue with language study. This mixed-methods research project was planned and conducted in three discrete sequential strands. Each strand engaged with the views and experiences of both learners and teachers. The first strand comprised initial stakeholder consultation meetings to inform the research purposes. This improved the likelihood that the research addressed issues which were of importance to those most affected by policy decisions which were beyond their control. The second strand adopted survey methodology to gather data pertaining to how modern language learning at secondary level is planned, delivered and experienced. Following quantitative analysis, the data offers insight into the experiences of sub-groups across a broad sample of the student and teacher populations. The third strand adopted qualitative focus groups to develop a better understanding of the extent of choice experienced at individual and institutional levels. The main emphasis was on the factors informing decision-making about language learning at secondary level in NI, how young people described their motivations and whether they experienced agency in these processes. Whilst it is not uncommon to engage with language learners in conducting research about language learning (Graham et al., 2016), aside from some notable examples, there is relatively little evidence of how young people experience choice and motivation in relation to studying languages (Taylor and Marsden, 2014; Coffey, 2018). A guiding principle of this research is the recognition of young people as experts in their own lives (Clark, 2004). Therefore, the primary focus on engaging with young people’s views and experiences of choice and decision-making in language learning, at three critical moments in their own language learning journeys, provides much needed data in this area.
The principle of choice has become deeply embedded in education systems internationally. Ball (op. cit.) has challenged the portrayal of choice in education policy as neutral, suggesting that it serves to perpetuate existing inequalities in education. Divergence in ideological beliefs and practical challenges have influenced the development of devolved policies relating to modern languages education. Nonetheless, a significant degree of alignment persists across the regions, such as the timing and duration of compulsory foreign language learning. However, there are also notable differences, such as approaches to the status of indigenous languages in the school curriculum at primary and secondary levels and the formal assessment mechanisms by which students may be accredited for their language skills and competences. One overarching policy objective in Northern Ireland is to reduce educational inequality (Northern Ireland Executive, 2016). However, this research shows that the policy and practice of language learning in NI schools are characterised by differences in the opportunities available to young people. The data confirms that language learners’ experiences differ at each stage of their trajectories through and beyond compulsory education. The paper will discuss: the differential provision of primary languages (Jones et al., 2017); inefficient arrangements for transition from primary to secondary education (Collen et al., 2017); differential access (particularly by school type) to language learning beyond age 14, when the phase of compulsory modern (foreign) language learning ends (Education and Training Inspectorate (NI), 2011); and young people’s accounts of their future aspirations for language learning. A full discussion of the different reasons that young people give for their own decisions about language learning will be provided. This research demonstrates the value of addressing gaps in evidence at the local level to better understand the significant impact of education policies on the lives of young people.
Ayres-Bennett, W. (2015) The Value of Languages. Ayres-Bennett, W. and Carruthers, J. (2019) Policy Briefing on Modern Languages Educational Policy in the UK. Ball, S., Maguire, M. and Braun, A. (2012) How schools do policy: Policy enactments in secondary schools. London: Routledge. Birrell, D. and Heenan, D. (2013) ‘Policy style and governing without consensus: Devolution and education policy in Northern Ireland’, Social Policy and Administration, 47(7), pp. 765–782. Clark, A. (2004) ‘The mosaic approach and research with young children’, in Lewis, V. et al. (eds) The Reality of Research with Children and Young People. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, pp. 142–161. Coffey, S. (2018) ‘Choosing to study modern foreign languages: Discourses of value as forms of cultural capital’, Applied Linguistics, 39(4), pp. 462–480. Coleman, J. A. (2009) ‘Why the British do not learn languages: Myths and motivation in the UK’, Language Learning Journal, 37(1), pp. 111–127. Collen, I., McKendry, E. and Henderson, L. (2017) The Transition from Primary Languages Programmes to Post-Primary Languages Provision. Education and Training Inspectorate (NI) (2011) A Short Report on the Provision for Modern Languages in a Sample of Non-Selective Schools. European Commission (2012) Special Eurobarometer 386: Europeans and Their Languages. EURYDICE (2017) Key Data on teaching Languages at School in Europe. Gill, T. (2017) The impact of the introduction of Progress 8 on the uptake and provision of qualifications in English schools. Graham, S., Courtney, L., Tonkyn, A., and Theodoros, M. (2016) ‘Motivational trajectories for early language learning across the primary–secondary school transition’, British Educational Research Journal, 42(4), pp. 682–702. Jones, S., Greenwood, R., Purdy, N. and McGuckian, E. (2017) Review of Current Primary Languages in Northern Ireland. Kelly, M. (2018) Languages after Brexit. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. Lanvers, U. and Coleman, J. A. (2017) ‘The UK language learning crisis in the public media: a critical analysis’, Language Learning Journal. Taylor & Francis, 45(1), pp. 3–25. Lingard, B. (2014) Politics, Policies and Pedagogies in Education. Oxon: Routledge. Macaro, E. (2008) ‘The decline in language learning in England: getting the facts right and getting real’, Language Learning Journal, 36(1), pp. 101–108. Northern Ireland Executive (2016) Programme for Government Consultation Document. Pring, R. (2005) ‘Labour government policy 14-19’, Oxford Review of Education, 31(1), pp. 71–85. Taylor, F. and Marsden, E. J. (2014) ‘Perceptions, attitudes, and choosing to study foreign languages in England: An experimental intervention’, Modern Language Journal, 98(4), pp. 902–920. Tinsley, T. and Dolezal, N. (2018) Language Trends 2018-England.
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