27th January 2020

Boys studying modern foreign languages at GCSE in schools in England

    A new report from the Education Policy Institute, commissioned by the British Council, highlights the methods of schools that are trying to close the gender gap in language learning by tackling boys’ underperformance.

    The research considers the latest trends in entry and attainment levels in GCSE languages, and examines the practices of schools that have been successful in tackling the growing gender divide.

    The report finds that boys’ entry and performance in GCSE languages is persistently lower than girls, with a pupil’s gender a stronger predictor of outcomes than a pupil’s level of disadvantage. These trends come as overall entries into languages have undergone a significant decline in recent years. In contrast with all other subjects in the government’s ‘EBacc’ group of core academic subjects, such as maths, sciences and English, foreign languages have seen an increasingly low rate of entries.

    You can download the full report here.


    Key findings


    • There is a significant gender gap in GCSE modern foreign languages: girls are more than twice (2.17 times) as likely as boys to achieve a pass (Level 4). 
    • Just 38 per cent of boys sat GCSE languages in the 2018 cohort, compared to half (50 per cent) of all girls. 
    • The gap is so pronounced that gender is a stronger predictor of success in languages than a pupil’s level of disadvantage: a female pupil from a poorer background is more likely to outperform a male pupil from a more affluent background.
    • While nationally the gender gap in entry and attainment is wide, there are a number of schools in England that have ‘beaten the odds’, by successfully boosting the participation and performance of boys at GCSE level. These are schools that would be expected to have lower than the average language attainment for boys, given their context, but in practice have performed well.
    • Successful schools highlight practices which promote inclusive language learning for all abilities as a reason behind increased male uptake.


          EPI recommendations


          • More study is needed on the benefits of language study for young people in the UK. Particular focus of further research should be given to the potential cross-curricular benefits of language learning, and its role in improving literacy and numeracy.
          • In light of the likelihood of a missed 2022 target for 75 per cent of pupils to be studying the EBacc, the government should clarify its position on the persisting gender gap within modern foreign languages, and whether it intends to address it. 
          • Ofqual should continue to address the difficulty of the assessment of language GCSEs to enable more inclusive language learning for all abilities. It should monitor the impact of its recent intervention to adjust French and German grading, and consider whether similar adjustments are needed for other languages.