This blog was kindly contributed by Megan Bowler, author of HEPI Report 123 ‘A Languages Crisis?’. Megan is in her third year at Oriel College, Oxford studying Classics.
A recent report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the British Council draws attention to the fact that there is a substantial gender gap in both the uptake of and attainment in foreign language GCSEs across secondary schools in England. Girls are more than twice as likely as boys to achieve a pass; just 38 per cent of boys sat a language GCSE in 2018 compared to 50 per cent of girls.
What are the consequences for higher education?
Unsurprisingly, this substantial gender gap in secondary school language learning has a consequent effect on A-Level entries, and in turn on higher education enrolment numbers for Languages subjects.
Languages are notably female-dominated at undergraduate level – 2017/18 data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show 71 per cent of enrolments were female. However, this is not particularly unusual; the majority of higher education courses, with the striking exceptions of Mathematics, Physics and Engineering, have a higher proportion of female enrolments. The Organisation for Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Education at a Glance notes an ongoing pattern:
Men are more likely than women to study in fields associated with higher earnings, such as engineering, manufacturing and construction, or science, mathematics and computing, while a higher share of women enrol in fields associated with lower earnings, including teacher training and education science, and humanities, languages and arts.
While government-supported initiatives designed to inspire girls to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (‘STEM’) disciplines have been successful in recent years, boys are not encouraged in similar ways to study subjects in which they are underrepresented at school and in higher education. Indeed, the emphasis on ‘STEM’ for all during the Coalition Government (2010-2015) has presented the solution to gender inequalities in subject choices as a case of getting more women to study ‘masculine’ subjects, rather than redressing gender imbalance across all subjects and, fundamentally, re-evaluating the way we assign ‘prestige value’ and gendered expectations to different academic fields and careers.
Can we do anything?
The fact that boys remain less likely to study Languages at GCSE, A-Level and in higher education has few quick solutions – it is manifestly based upon historical and ongoing societal attitudes which falsely associate genders with particular roles and skills. Such entrenched assumptions will continue to erode over time in a gradual process.
The fact that small but growing numbers of women are opting to study and work in traditionally ‘unfeminine’ fields suggests we should be optimistic about the possibility for attitude shifts, albeit slow-moving, towards men studying female-dominated subjects such as Languages. Classics – now increasingly female at undergraduate level – also presents an interesting picture. Though Latin and Greek are strongly associated with male independent school tradition, changes in social attitudes during the 20th century, and the provision of beginner language learning options on Classics courses, have made some steps towards improving diversity.
However, targeted policy decisions do have the potential to accelerate this process of change. For example, Scotland has demonstrated commitment to this through the Gender Action Plan for higher education introduced in 2016, which includes promoting greater male participation in subjects where they are currently under-represented.
In the case of subjects such as Languages, an effective strategy for increasing social and gender diversity in higher education must start in schools. The EPI-British Council report highlighted examples of good practice in schools which buck the trend and calls for governmental backing to increase the number of boys learning Languages:
In light of the likelihood of a missed 2022 target for 75 per cent of pupils to be studying the EBacc, Government should clarify its position on the persisting gender gap within modern foreign languages, and whether it intends to address it. Initiatives to improve gender balance have been funded by DfE in a number of subjects – typically those where girls are underrepresented.
Ideally, reintroducing compulsory language learning at Key Stage 4 level, with a range of optional, English Baccalaureate-recognised qualifications that better accommodate different needs and interests, could resolve gender disparity at this stage. Although this would not instantly close the gaps later on, making Languages more inclusive at age 14 and commending pupils’ heritage language abilities would improve perceptions of languages in later life, preventing pupils, especially boys, permanently dismissing language learning at an early age.
Addressing gender imbalances in Languages beyond GCSE will inevitably be a process of challenging subconscious mindsets. Schools and higher education institutions can provide role models and promote academic opportunities and university applications from boys. Crucially, we need to improve recognition of language learning – whether in academic study or extra-curricular learning – as a valuable educational experience that has tangible advantages for all genders, interests and abilities.
In promoting languages to all and particularly to boys, we should avoid a ‘Two Cultures’ mindset, focusing instead on the way that languages build transferable skills which are useful for all academic disciplines; languages require similar analytical and logic-based approaches to, for instance, Mathematics and Computing. Furthermore, the OECD’s explanation suggests that workplaces and employers must also place value on linguistic competence to incentivise language study. The fact that the British Army – especially since this is a traditionally ‘masculine’ field – is taking measures to ensure intercultural knowledge and language proficiency among its senior ranks, for important strategic reasons, is a positive example of this.