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Report reveals impact of Covid-19 on language learning at schools in England

Covid-19 has had a ‘negative impact’ on language learning at schools in England, according to a new British Council report published today (Thursday 8 July 2021), which was jointly authored by an academic from Queen’s University Belfast.

School children in a school setting

The Language Trends 2021 report surveyed teachers at more than 1,500 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.

Dr Ian Collen, Senior Lecturer in Modern Languages Education from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s was one of the authors of the Language Trends 2021 report.

This year’s report found that the impact of Covid-19 caused significant disruption to language learning, particularly during the first national lockdown from 23 March to late June 2020. Language teaching was discontinued at more than half (53 per cent) of primary schools in England during this period.

For the 47 per cent of primary schools which did continue to teach languages during this period, only 5 per cent taught live lessons using video conferencing tools such as Zoom. By the time of data collection in January and February 2021, one in five primary schools continued to suspend language teaching

There were some signs of improvement during the third national lockdown in January 2021, when the number of pupils without regular internet access halved to an average of one in six. The number of pupils not engaging in language learning decreased to one in five. Teachers were also more confident, with nearly all (98 per cent) reporting that they felt much better prepared for online teaching in 2021 than in 2020.

However, data collected as part of a large-scale pupil survey for Language Trends Northern Ireland 2021 revealed that 54 per cent of Year 8 pupils there said that learning languages online was more difficult. With speaking and listening an essential and interactive part of language learning, it is likely that disadvantaged pupils at schools in England, who are less likely to have access to the tech required to participate in online lessons, will have been pushed even further behind their more advantaged peers.

Previous Language Trends reports have found that international engagement opportunities for pupils and teachers have been decreasing since 2018. This year’s report found that the pandemic has contributed to the continued and significant reduction in international opportunities. These include not only trips abroad but activities such as partnering with a school abroad, involvement in international projects and hosting a language assistant.

For now, French remains the most popular language studied at primary, Key Stage 3 and GCSE. At Key Stage 3, French is taught by 91 per cent of responding state schools and 92 per cent of responding independent schools, followed by Spanish in 74 per cent and 89 per cent of state and independent schools respectively. German provision is particularly patchy across the country, offered by 70 per cent of independent schools but just 36 per cent of state schools – a noticeable decline since 2018.

Exams in the summer of 2020 were cancelled because of Covid-19, with grades awarded based on pupils’ centre assessment grade or calculated grade, whichever was higher. For the first time, Spanish attracted over 100,000 GCSE entries – almost double the 2005 statistic – and was the most popular A-level language for the second year in a row. If current trends continue, the report predicts that Spanish is likely to overtake French as the most popular GCSE language by 2026.

Many language teachers reported that they cannot wait to get back to face-to-face teaching in the classroom, but despite the barriers they have faced over the past year it is encouraging to see how swiftly they pivoted to remote learning during the national lockdowns. Nearly all reported feeling better prepared to provide online lessons during 2021. It is clear from the survey that teachers have worked incredibly hard during the pandemic.

Resourcing and opportunities have increased for online, language-specific Continuing Professional Development (CPD) – that is, in-service training for teachers to build their skills and knowledge. 32 per cent of primary teachers, 60 per cent of teachers in independent schools and 67 per cent of teachers in state schools have taken part in online CPD during the past year.

Speaking about the findings, Dr Collen commented: “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.”

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.”

To read the full report, please visit: https://www.britishcouncil.org/research-policy-insight/research-reports/language-trends-2021

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