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Ursula Lanvers

3 Elitism in language learning in the UK

“All education is fundamentally political” (Pennycook, 1989: 590); this dictum
may be considered especially salient in the learning and teaching of languages,
as they have often been instrumentalised for political purposes, for instance as
national unifier, to assert sovereignty or support counter  – terrorism (Broady,
2006; Kramsch, 2005). Historically, language education – like all formal educa-
tion – was reserved for the elite, i.e. it served predominantly as a vehicle to access
high culture, and as an entry condition to higher education (McLelland, 2013;
Swarbrick, 2002). Classical languages especially tended to be associated with
these rationales, and when modern languages were introduced into the class-
room in the late 19th century, their rationales initially followed that of teaching
Classics. With widening access to Secondary education came a greater emphasis
on vocational rationales, such as languages for business, trade and politics. In
UK education policy, this emphasis on skills – for modern languages especially
but also generally in education policy – peaked in the 1970s and 80s, in line with
a great drive to improve employability through education, and the retention of
students in full time education, especially from socially disadvantaged back-
grounds (Machin & Vignoles, 2006). Language pedagogues of the time viewed
both widening access to language learning, and the focus on vocational purposes,
as vehicles towards levelling social and educational divisions (e.g., Mcdowell,
2004; Payne, 2000), in line with pedagogical practices foregrounding skills and
communicative competence.
Thus, rationales for teaching languages (especially at Secondary school
level), as well as actual language education policies, have historically been
intrinsically linked to issues of widening participation and equal opportunities.
Despite – or perhaps especially because of – the lack of coherent language educa-
tion policies in the UK over the last three decades (Pachler, 2007), the challenge
of trying to understand and interpret UK language policies would be well assisted
by considering their social implications, especially regarding widening access
and employability. Given the lack of clarity in direction for languages policy, and
apparent disjointure between Primary and Secondary language education, inter-
preting UK language policy presents a particular challenge. Any interpretations
of intentionality or underlying rationales of current UK language policies must
be corroborated with solid data, such as socio-demographics of language learn-

DOI 10.1515/9781501503085-004

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 Elitism in language learning in the UK   51

ing uptake. Therefore, this chapter will be divided into a conceptual and a data
section, addressing the following questions:

1. a. How does current UK language education policy relate to i) rationales for teaching
languages ii) UK language needs?
b. Which rationales underlie current UK language education policies? Would these
rationales favour widening access and comprehensive language learning?
2. What are the effects of UK current language education policy on widening access and
social equality in language learning
a. at Secondary school level?
b. at Higher Education level?
c. for the uptake of Latin/Classics in particular?

Part I will first briefly recount actual language policies and subsequent changes
in language uptake. The following section will appraise the rationales for teach-
ing languages, and their implications for a socially inclusive, or, conversely,
elitist agenda for languages, asking what rationales (if any) can be inferred. In
Part II, data is presented i) relating language uptake to school type, including the
uptake of Latin in schools, and ii) relating university uptake of languages, and
Classics, to measures of widening participation. The conclusion forecasts further
implications of current policy and socio-demographic and calls for for a need to
reconsider widening rationales of teaching languages.

Part I
How does current UK language education policy
relate to i) rationales for teaching languages,
and ii) UK language needs?

UK language education policy

UK education policy is devolved to its four constituent nations (England, Scot-

land, Wales, Northern Ireland), each of which has different linguistic contexts
and policies (for an overview of nation-specific policy, see Tinsley, 2013). For
instance, the study of Welsh is compulsory at lover Secondary level in Wales,
while Scotland has committed to the ambitious EU target (European Commission,
2012) of reaching proficiency in two languages, in addition to the mother tongue,
by 2020 (Gallagher-Brett et al., 2014). In Northern Ireland and Wales, the study of
a foreign language is compulsory from age 11–14, while in England and Scotland,

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52   Ursula Lanvers

languages are also compulsory at the upper Primary school (age 7–11) level. Unless
otherwise stated, the following section on language uptake and policy reports on
England, with references to differences in the other nations where appropriate.
Language learning in England was confined to a minority until 1977, when
only 10 % of pupils studied a language up to GCE O – level (precursors of GCSE,
nationally standardized and accredited tests in a variety of subjects at age 16+)
(Hawkins 1981). With the move to comprehensive education and a National Cur-
riculum for all in the 1980s, compulsory languages up to age 16 were introduced in
1988. In 2004, in a general loosening of the National Curriculum, languages were
made optional again from age 14+ onwards. Uptake of GCSE languages dropped
to 40 % in 2011 (Tinsley and Han, 2012), with subsequent further year-on-year
reductions. For 2014, the percentage of GCSE German pupils was at the level of
those of 1985, and that of French as low as 1965 (McLelland & Smith, 2014). The
teaching of Classics, historically associated with both elitist private education
and the rationale of accessing “high culture” (Mitchell, 2003), has been in steady
decline since the second half of the 20th century. However, Latin has seen a small
revival in English state schools since the 2000s, as a result of a significant Gov-
ernment investment. As Latin seems to somewhat buck the trend of language
learning decline generally, and more specifically that in state schools, the case of
Latin will be considered specifically, at both Secondary and Tertiary level, in the
data section below.
In sum, language teaching is now only compulsory at upper primary (Key
Stage 2: age 7–11, KS2), and lower secondary Key Stage 3 (age 11–14, KS3) school
level in England. Individual schools can choose to make languages compulsory
up to age 16, and a minority of state schools do – currently, only 18 % of state, com-
pared to 76 % of private schools, have a policy of compulsory languages up to age
16 (Conversation, 2015) – but systemic conditions militate against this: schools”
achievements are measured in “league tables” compiled of overall school GCSE
results. As good grades in a language have been persistently 0.5 times harder to
achieve than in other GCSE subjects (Coleman, 2013), removing the requirement
to take a language GCSE can significantly improve a schools league table position.
Generally, the quest to improve education standards in the 2000s has seen
an increasing variety of school types working outside the National Curriculum
(“Academies” and “Free Schools”) (Morris, 2015). This move towards self-govern-
ing schools was introduced to improve school provision in areas of social depri-
vation (Higham, 2014). So far, however, especially concerning Academies, these
aims are unrealized largely because these schools are free to choose their admis-
sions, unlike comprehensive schools, whose cohorts typically represent a wider
social mix (Gorard, 2014). Both scholarly articles (Foreman-Peck 2007; Lanvers &

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 Elitism in language learning in the UK   53

Coleman, 2013) and Government-commissioned reports (Tinsley & Board, 2013;

Tinsley, 2013; Tinsley & Han, 2012) on the topic reveal

– a continuous decline in the uptake of language learning over the last decade (for all
modern languages except Spanish);
– a detrimental effect of the language skills gap on the economy;
– a plethora of initiatives instigated to address the decline (e.g. the Government-funded
university consortium “Routes into Languages”, the All Party Parliamentary Group on
Modern Languages, British Academy).

Rationales for languages

The history of educationalists debating justifications for (compulsory) language

teaching reveals a tension between arguments that foreground individual devel-
opment and personal enrichment, or, conversely, functional use and societal
benefits. For a conceptual contribution on languages in the curriculum, Mitch-
ell’s (2003) seminal article offers the most comprehensive discussion of such
rationales. In brief, rationales for languages in the curriculum span across six

1. as vehicle of high culture,

2. as intellectual cognitive discipline including developing language awareness,
3. as tool for practical communication (instrumental, vocational, Higher Education),
4. as means for personal self development and self expression,
5. as tool for exploring contemporary cultures and to develop intercultural communica-
6. as tools for political projects (e.g. European integration) (Mitchell, 2003)

which can be plotted (permitting some overlaps) on a continuum from functional

use to personal enrichment use as follows:

Table 1: Functional versus personal enrichment rationales for languages

Functional use ⇔ Personal enrichment

professional use cognitive discipline exploring ­cultures self-development

­political projects linguistic awareness ­intercultural vehicle for high
­communication culture

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54   Ursula Lanvers

Situating these rationales along a continuum of functional use versus personal

enrichment enables a critical appraisal of the perceived need for, and justifica-
tion of, comprehensive versus elitist education: the more functional the ration-
ales, and the more functional language uses are deemed to be needed for the
many rather than few, the better they justify a comprehensive language educa-
tion policy, with a promise of “monetary return on (educational) investment”.
Conversely, personal enrichment rationales, with the dual uncertainty of a)
“measuring” such benefits b) deciding what percentage of the population could
or should benefit from these, for maximum overall benefit, complicate the issue
of justifying such educational investments considerably. Similarly, many ration-
ales encompassing some personal benefits as well as some functional use, such
as fostering intercultural communication, cognitive development, and fostering
linguistic awareness, evoke evoke similar problems of justifying educational
investment. In the UK context, however, the difficulties of a cost-benefit analysis
of language education policies, for all rationales but the most functional ones,
pale somewhat into insignificance when considering the evidence for precisely
the need for languages for functional use, which is discussed in the next section.

UK multilingualism and language needs

The UK lives in the paradox of “tremendous linguistic diversity combined with

widespread and pronounced English monolingualism” (Demont-Heinrich, 2007:
114). There is no precise data on how many people speak different languages in
the UK, but an estimated 17.5 % of Primary and 12.9 % of Secondary school chil-
dren speak mother tongues other than English (DfE, 2011), the most common
ones being Polish, languages of the Indian subcontinent, Chinese, Arabic, and
Portuguese (British Council, 2013). UK pupils with English as a second language
typically come from below-average socio-economic backgrounds (Campbell &
McLean, 2002; Hickman, Crowley & Mai, 2008). Community languages are rarely
studied formally, and there are no full degree courses for the most widely spoken
community languages, although paradoxically, high literacy skills in these lan-
guages would be highly advantageous for professional advancement (McPake &
Sachdev, 2008).
Meanwhile, language competencies developed though school learning in the
UK are the poorest of all EU countries (bar, in some statistics, Ireland) (British
Council, 2013; European Commission, 2012). The lack of language skills is
claimed to damage the UK’s export performance (British Chamber of Commerce,
2012). To address the gap between supply and demand of language skills, the
Government has commissioned a remarkable number of reports and investiga-

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 Elitism in language learning in the UK   55

tions into the state of language learning the last two decades. Specifically, the
following two reports address the issue of language needs: Languages: State of
the Nation: demand and supply of language skills in the UK (Tinsley, 2013) and
Languages for the Future: which languages the UK needs and why (Tinsley &
Board, 2013). The following two investigations review language teaching provi-
sion: Languages Review (2007) and Nuffield Languages Inquiry (Languages: the
next generation, 2000). The reports strongly focus on the functional rationale of
professional (business and trade) language use, not only to the detriment of per-
sonal enrichment rationales, but also overlooking functional benefits of a more
collective nature, such as fostering social cohesion in modern multicultural and
multilingual Britain, or European integration. Similarly, the recent Languages for
the Future report (British Council, 2013) concludes that the UK needs to develop
its citizens” language competencies by offering a wider range of languages to be
learned to a higher competency level “in order to reap the economic and cultural
benefits available to those who have these skills” (p. 3, emphasis by author); a
wording that reveals how language skills -and reaping the benefits that come
with them- are not considered for all.
The Achilles heel of the “trade and business” rationale comes in the form
of Global English, referred to in the Languages for the Future (Tinsley & Board,
2013), as balancing factors, negating the need for language skills if the UK trades
with countries with high English proficiency, notably Germany, the Netherlands
and other Northern European countries. We shall return to the implications of
this argument in the conclusion.
The Languages Review (2007) and Nufflield Language Inquiry (2000) refer to
investigations into the teaching of languages refer to wider sets of rationales. For
instance, the Languages Review (2007: 17) suggests to differentiate between per-
sonal, vocational and specialist rationales for language learning at KS4 and calls
for a “National Languages strategy [providing] a long term framework which is
still in development at all three Key Stages based on a new rationale for language
learning in an English speaking society”. This report urges to provide more stim-
ulating topics for discussions “about subjects that are of concern and interest to
young people” (p.39). Similarly, the Nuffield Languages Inquiry (2000: 7), despite
its overall emphasis on economic rationales for languages, specifically refers to
the societal contribution of modern languages (MFL) to foster intercultural toler-
ance and social cohesion.
To summarize, the Governmental rationales for introducing compulsory lan-
guages up to GCSE placed emphasis on functional use (DES, 1987), aligned with
broader educational principles that underpinned the comprehensive education
movement from 1960s onwards, and the communicative approach in language
teaching. Since then, the Government abolished compulsory languages up to age

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56   Ursula Lanvers

16 in 2004, and, within the space of one year, introduced compulsory Primary
languages, underlining the lack of direction or clear rationales for language edu-
The fate of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) (English Baccaluareate, 2015)
might exemplify the continuing lack of direction: the EBacc, first applied in 2010,
designed to measure good achievement in five key subjects at GCSE, initially did
include a compulsory language, which was replaced, a year later, with the option
of including two sciences instead of a language. More recently, the Government
re-introduced a language as compulsory part of the EBacc qualification (the Con-
versation 2015).

Which rationales underlie current UK language

education policies? Would these rationales favour
widening access and comprehensive language
The Government declares itself committed to evidence-base education policy,
a principle hard to retrace in current language policy. For instance, language
education researchers have been arguing for some time now that curriculum
teaching approaches to grammar, are not based on research evidence (Mitchell,
2000). Generally, policy makers’ beliefs about language learning often differ from
research evidence (Lightbown, 2000), so in this sense, language policies may not
constitute an exception, were it were it not for the frequent changes outlined
One relatively constant trend in these fluctuations, however, is a gradual
erosion of comprehensive language education for ages 14+, suggesting that  –
whatever the Government’s precise rationales for language education – advanced
language skills are deemed beneficial for the few, not the many. Both Govern-
ment-commissioned and independent academic reports stress the functional
rationales and economic benefits of languages, which might offer a coherent
rationale for comprehensive language. In contrast, independent inquiries tend
to cite more holistic rationales such as personal and societal benefits.
In the absence of clear rationales, a look at recent changes in the languages
curriculum for England (New Curriculum, 2013) might help. The New Curricu-
lum starts with the preamble “Learning a foreign language is a liberation from
insularity and provides an opening to other cultures” (New Curriculum, 2013).
Subsequent aims and attainment target clearly focus on communicative skills,

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 Elitism in language learning in the UK   57

fluency and accuracy. For instance, the new KS2 curriculum focuses on practical
communication. Regarding Classics, it adds: “If an ancient language is chosen,
the focus will be to provide a linguistic foundation for reading comprehension
and an appreciation of classical civilisation.” (New Curriculum, 2013).
For KS3, the changes include ending curriculum levels – in an effort to move
from assessment-driven teaching-, an emphasis on translation, transliteration
and writing in English generally, and a de-emphasis on cultural knowledge. The
new GCSE in MFL for KS4 (Association for Language Learning, 2015) puts greater
emphasis on studying literary texts, translation, English skills, as well as the cul-
tures of the target languages. Similarly, for A  – level, the need to engage criti-
cally with literature has been introduced, and, for A – level Classics, new content
focuses on literature, history and culture.
Although the above changes do not easily align with any one specific ration-
ale for languages, two aspects stand out, namely the emphasis on using lan-
guages to teach English literacy skills, in particular at lower levels, and a greater
emphasis on literature and accuracy, at KS4 and A – level. The absence of a lan-
guage specific rationale is striking: languages are considered an opportunity to
push English skills, deemed important for employability, for all students. The
second emphasis relates to rationales traditionally reserved for the educated
elite and targets upper school levels only, where language learning has become
optional. Part II will show in detail the pervasion of inequality in language learn-
ing at these levels.

Part II
What is the effect of UK current language
education policy on widening access and social
equality in language learning?
a. at Secondary school level
b. at higher education level
c. for the uptake of Classics/Latin in particular?

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58   Ursula Lanvers

Secondary schools

This section summarizes key results on modern languages, relating uptake to a)

percentage of pupils entitled to a free school meal b) type of school, demonstrat-
ing that language learning is divided largely along the line of schools selecting or
not selecting their intake, rather than state versus private schools.
The social divide in education in the UK is evidenced by affluent parents
opting for fee-paying education (7 % of UK pupils, Ryan & Sibieta, 2010), UK
parents paying the most in Europe for private education (Daily Mail, 2011).
Regarding language learning, the social divide is well-documented in Tinsley &
Han (2012) and Board & Tinsley (2014). This study also adds new data on Latin,
using data mining from different websites, notably Cambridge School Classics
Project (CSCP, 2015).
The percentage of pupils entitled to a free school meal (FSM) is considered
a good proxi indicator of the relative deprivation of schools’ intake (Allen &
Vignoles, 2007). Schools with above average numbers of FSM pupils are 50 %
less likely to have languages as a compulsory subject at KS4; consequently, the
number of pupils studying a language GCSE is strongly related to the level of
social disadvantage of the pupil cohort (Tinsley & Han, 2012: 27). Furthermore,
schools with below average FSM pupil numbers are about twice as likely to have
at least 50 % of their pupils studying a language GCSE (Tinsley & Board, 2013:
84). The study reports a rapidly worsening divide: In 2007, 26 % of pupils on free
school meals took at least one modern language, whereas now only 14 % of pupils
on FSM do. Overall, academic achievement of a school is strongly related to lan-
guage uptake: the higher the overall school performance quintile, the higher the
proportion of pupils taking a GCSE language (Tinsley & Board, 2013: 84).
The largest between-school difference is between those schools that are able
to select pupils (usually on grounds of academic performance) and those who
do not, with 90 % GCSE language take-up in selective state  – funded schools,
and 48 % in non-selective. At the post – compulsory level, independent schools
teach significantly more languages than state schools, as do schools in the
state with predominantly middle class intake (Board & Tinsley, 2014; Tinsley
& Han, 2012). In 2011, only 23 % of state schools had compulsory languages at
age 14+, compared to an estimated 97 % of independent schools (Independent,
2004), and 75 % of state school educated 14 – year-olds did not study a foreign
language. In 2013, 63 % of independent school pupils took a language exami-
nation at GCSE, followed by converter academies (55 %), only 46 % in schools
that remain under Local Authority control, and 33 % only in schools that were
obliged to take Academy status because of failing schooling inspections. (Acad-
emies (http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/leadership/typesofschools/acad-

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 Elitism in language learning in the UK   59

emies/b00205692/whatisanacademy) and free schools (http://www.education.

gov.uk/schools/leadership/type sofschools/freeschools) are self-governing
schools. Converter Academies, in the process of applying for Academy status,
need to prove high academic standards. Comprehensive schools work under
Local Authority governance and normally do not select students, other than by
catchment area. Grammar schools are state funded schools which select intake
on academic merit.) In 30 % of state schools, pupils do not get any opportunity
to study a language at KS4. Independent schools start from a much higher rate,
at both A  – level and GCSE, but their uptake is declining at a similar rate; for
instance, 81 % of independent schools had compulsory GCSE languages in 2012,
and 76 % the subsequent year, with A – level uptake showing similar downwards
trends (all data: Tinsley & Board, 2013, for A – level, see also Malpass, 2014).
The social divide also interacts with the education gender gap, females out-
performing males. Boys from poorer backgrounds and educated in state schools
with high FSMs are the least likely to study languages at GCSE or beyond, while
females from the independent sector, followed by girls in schools with low FSMs,
are the most likely to study languages at GCSE and beyond (Chowdry et al., 2013:
14f). Unlike other languages, Latin is about as popular with boys as girls (Gill,
To conclude, school language provision strongly relates to school type, which
in turn relates to socio-economic status (SES) intake: school management ration-
alize their (poor or good) language provision with reference to their pupils’ SES
background, not their achievements or their interests (Lanvers, 2016). Since the
2004 policy, removing the need to study a languages for ages 14+, opportunities
to learn languages for pupils from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds at age 14+,
but especially at post-compulsory education age, have declined drastically. The
relationship between SES, mobility, and language learning has been reported
before (Carr & Pauwels, 2006; Gayton, 2010), demonstrating that students (and
their parents) from more affluent backgrounds are more likely to value personal
benefits and reap long terms professional advantages of language study, with a
social capital (in the Bourdieuan sense) more likely to esteem a broad education.


In recent years, Latin has shown a somewhat surprising revival, since 2006 in UK
state schools, helped by a £10 million Government investment. Therefore, this
section will report on the social divide in learning this language first, in order to
then debate possible Government motives for fostering Latin.

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60   Ursula Lanvers

Independent schools are much more likely to teach Latin than state schools
(60.5 % versus 12.9 %, CSCP, 2015). In 2014, half of all English schools teach-
ing Latin were state selective (Grammar) (CSCP, 2015). There is little difference
between Grammar schools (59.8 %) and private schools (60.5 %) teaching Latin
but only 9.1 % in non-selective secondary state schools offer Latin (all data: CSCP,
2008). Latin is taught up to A – level in 8 % of state versus 48 % of independent
schools, i.e. 6x more. (Tinsley & Board, 2013:104).
In the context of an increasing elitist divide for modern languages provision,
the state school increase of Latin seems welcome; indeed, justifying the invest-
ment into the subject, the then Education Secretary Michael Gove interprets the
Latin surge as a sign of “breaking down the “Berlin Wall” between state and
private schools” (Independent, 2015). This statement ignores the fact that only
selective state schools, mostly Grammar schools, with well above average SES
intake (Strand, Deary & Smith, 2006), are responsible for the apparent “breaking
down of the wall”. Nonetheless, the Latin surge in state schools offers politicians
an opportunity to appeal to both traditionalists (in terms of the subject) and pro-
gressive educators at once.
In line with the attempts to re – popularize the learning of Latin, language
pedagogues (Classics at Oxford, 2014) are at pains to move from rationales tradi-
tionally perceived as elitist, and instead refer to the development of literacy skills
and cognitive advantages (CSCP, 2008 & 2015; Lister, 2009). Notwithstanding
efforts by both Classicists and politicians to give the subject this “image change”,
Latin remains firmly rooted in those school attracting middle class intakes, as
above figures have shown.

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 Elitism in language learning in the UK   61

The language learning social divide in higher education (HE)

Table 1: Acceptances by subject group and educational establishment (UK domiciled only, aged
19 and under, 2013)

Academy Further Grammar Independ- 6th form State Other total

Education ent College
College (age
(age 16+–18+)

European 839 109 184 947 444 674 145 3,342

and related

Linguistics, 2,795 559 350 1,526 1,875 2,299 644 10,048

and related

all subjects 83,905 45,118 12,933 34,184 65,912 83,294 n/a 369,473

Note: Further education and 6 form colleges are (typically state) schools specializing in

­education age 16+to 18+, including academic subject A-level provision and vocational courses.
Academy, Grammar: see footnote 1. Data from http://www.ucas.com/sites/default/files/ucas-

In order to relate HE statistics from various websites to social indicators of par-

ticipation in HE, data mining of hitherto unused data was used, notably: Cam-
bridge School Classics Project (CSCP), Department for Education (DfE), Higher
Education Statistics Agency (HESA), University Central Admissions System
(UCAS), University Council for Modern Languages (UCML), QS World University,
and research assessment score ratings. HESA categorizations of degree courses
were used, meaning that undergraduate degrees categorized as language were
included (combined or single honours), but not those categorized as cultural,
European or international studies. Table 1 shows the origin of 2013 applicants to
higher education languages programmes by school type.
In 2013, pupils from independent schools made up nearly 10 % of applicants
across all subjects, but 28 % of applicants for European Languages (UCAS, 2013).
Another 25 % of language applicants are from Academies, compared to 23 % for
all subjects, and only 19 % from other state schools, compared to 22 % for all sub-

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62   Ursula Lanvers

jects. Thus, entries into languages are predominantly from independent, followed
by selective state schools (Academies, Grammars). Regarding Classics and related
subjects, 15 % of applicants came from independent schools, 28 % from Acade-
mies, and 23 % from other state schools. In other words: while the cohort of uni-
versity applicants to study European languages largely mirrors the social divide
found at secondary level, applicants for Classics from selective state schools now
outperform those from independent schools in UCAS submissions. Thus, while a
representative (for all UCAS applicants) percentage of state educated pupils now
apply to study Classics, they almost exclusively come from selective state schools.
Table II lists the UK’s largest university modern languages departments
(defined by HESA principal subject codes), research ranking data (www.topuni-
versities.com/university-rankings), and widening participation data (percentage
of students from state schools admitted to that university, percentage of students
from lower socioeconomic backgrounds); as the latter data is not available broken
down by department, whole university percentages are given.

Table 2: UK university modern languages departments: size, ranking, widening participation123

11 Largest UK MFL Depart- student QS world % of students % of students from

ments 2012/13 (HESA no ranking from state lower SES
Student Records) Modern schools2 (2012/13 HESA data)

The Open University3 3075 n/a n/a

Warwick 2480 75.5 % 19.5 %

Leeds Beckett University 2340 94 % 35 %

Nottingham 1760 75.8 % 19.1 %

Oxford 1590 57.4 % 9.6 %

Glasgow 1415 86.3 % 22.3 %

Leeds 1330 76.2 % 20.2 %

King’s College London 1190 70.9 % 24.2 %

Manchester 1190 81.4 % 25.3 %

1 From http://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings
2 2012/13 HESA data. From https://www.hesa.ac.uk/pis/urg
3 The Open University does not feature in UCAS data, hence widening participation data is not
available. It is therefore omitted from further analysis

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 Elitism in language learning in the UK   63

Tab. 2 (continued)

11 Largest UK MFL Depart- student QS world % of students % of students from

ments 2012/13 (HESA no ranking from state lower SES
Student Records) Modern schools2 (2012/13 HESA data)

St Andrews 1170 58.9 % 13.1 %

University College London 1115 67.7 % 20.2 %

Total UK MFL students 41305

Top 15 UK QS ranked University MFL Departments (research & overall reputation)

Oxford 1 57.4 % 9.6 %

Cambridge 2 67 % 11.7 %

University College London 8 67.7 % 20.2 %

Edinburgh 12 67.3 % 16.6 %

Warwick 24 75.5 % 19.5 %

School of Oriental and Asian 32 76.2 % 28.2 %


York 48 78.1 % 20.7 %

King’s College London 49 70.9 % 24.2 %

Durham 51–100 63.4 % 12.5 %

Lancaster 51–100 90.9 % 25.3 %

Sheffield 51–100 85.2 % 20 %

Birmingham 51–100 78.6 % 22.4 %

Bristol 51–100 59.4 % 14.3 %

Leeds 51–100 76.2 % 22.2 %

Southampton 51–100 86.3 % 22.4 %

HE UK average 2013 (HESA) 89.3 % 32.3 %

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64   Ursula Lanvers

Tab. 2 (continued)


within 5 % of UK average

5–10 % lower than UK average

10–15 % lower than UK average

15–20 % lower than UK average

20+% lower than UK average

Overlap between largest and most highly ranked Departments

Other than Leeds Beckett, all modern languages departments are located in
institutions with at least one (mostly two) lower widening participation figures
than the UK average; Oxford and Cambridge, but also Durham, Edinburgh and
Kings College London perform poorest in both widening participation records,
and highest in research ranking. The table shows that the larger and more repu-
table their language department, the less likely the university is to have students
from poorer SES backgrounds, but more likely it is to have students from private
schools. Language students show lower social diversity than those studying other
subjects: In 2012/13, the percentage of university students from disadvantaged
social backgrounds studying languages was 25 % compared to 32 % across all
subjects (HESA, 2014). The gender gap observed at school level also intensifies
at university level; only 33 % of language graduates are male (CILT, 2010). The
overall picture regarding social division for modern language HE students is that
of a reinforcement of the comprehensive versus selective (both state and inde-
pendent school) divide.

Modern languages departmental closures

The number of universities offering language degrees dropped by 40 % between

1998 and 2013 (Guardian, 2013). The concentration of language degrees in elite
universities reinforces elite self-selection: according to this trend, students not
aiming for a high selective university will not be able to consider languages as
a degree option in the future. Different languages are affected differently by the
elitist divide: Russian, for instance, is only offered at one post-1992 university
(Central Lancashire). The majority of single honours German and Italian, and half
of French and Spanish degrees are offered at old universities (Guardian, 2013).

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 Elitism in language learning in the UK   65


As HESA records on Classics students (as defined by HESA student records) are
merged with those studying Linguistics and other disciplines, comparative tables
for Classics alone are unavailable. Figures on the uptake of Classics do not suggest
that the subject might aid to counter the decline in languages in HE overall. As for
Table II, Table III lists the UK’s largest university Classics departments (defined
by HESA Principal subject codes), combined with institutional widening partici-
pation and research ranking data.

Table 3: UK university Classics separtments: Size, ranking, widening participation

11 Largest UK Classics student 2014 UK % of students % of students from

Departments 2012/13 no research from State schools lower SES
(HESA Student Records) assessment (2012/13 HESA (2012/13 HESA data)
score (Clas- data)

University of Oxford 400 57.4 % 9.6 %

University of Cambridge 340 67 % 11.7 %

King’s College London 315 70.9 % 24.2 %

University of Edinburgh 290 67.3 % 16.6 %

University of Manchester 265 81.4 % 25.3 %

University of Durham 265 63.4 % 12.5 %

University of Leeds 255 76.2 % 20.2 %

University of Exeter 245 69.1 % 15.8 %

Swansea University 230 91.6 % 28.2 %

University of Reading 230 84.9 23.3 %

Total UK Classics students 5025

Top 10 UK ranked University Classics Departments (by 2014 research assessment score)

University College London 82 65.7 % 20.2 %

University of Bristol 82 59.4 % 14.3 %

University of Cambridge 80 67 % 11.7 %

University of Exeter 74 69.1 % 15.8 %

University of Durham 74 63.4 % 12.5 %

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66   Ursula Lanvers

Tab. 3 (continued)

11 Largest UK Classics student 2014 UK % of students % of students from

Departments 2012/13 no research from State schools lower SES
(HESA Student Records) assessment (2012/13 HESA (2012/13 HESA data)
score (Clas- data)

University of Edinburgh 74 67.3 % 16.6 %

University of Oxford 72 57.4 % 9.6 %

St Andrews 70 58.9 % 13.1 %

University of Warwick 68 75.5 % 19.5 %

Royal Holloway 68 82.1 % 26.7 %

HE UK average 2013 (HESA) 89.3 % 32.3 %

* Classics defined as the following HESA principal subject codes: Latin studies, Classical Greek
studies, Classical studies.


within 5 % of UK average

5–10 % lower than UK average

10–15 % lower than UK average

15–20 % lower than UK average

20+% lower than UK average

Overlap between largest and most highly ranked Departments

Table III shows an even more skewed intake of Classics students than for modern
languages (Table II), regarding two measures for widening participation: seven
of the ten universities with largest UK Classics departments take over 20 % more
than the UK average of privately educated students, and all universities with large
Classics departments have lower than average representation of students from
socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Together with the evidence from
Table II, the findings show that while the percentage of Classics students entering
HE from state schools may look representative at first sight, it hides two important
differentiators. By virtue of skewed provision of Latin in state schools (see above),
students studying Classics come almost exclusively from selective state schools;
furthermore, the more reputable the university, and larger the Classics depart-
ment, the lower the participation from poorer SES at that university.

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 Elitism in language learning in the UK   67


This chapter has mapped a UK language learning landscape characterized by

i) decline of language uptake age 14+ ii) a sharp and increasing social division
in language learning uptake at age 14+ iii) language education policies lacking
coherent direction or rationales.
The 2004 move to abolish compulsory language age 14+ has been described
as a “knee jerk reaction” to students’ lack of motivation for languages (Pachler,
2007); likewise, the immediately following decision to make languages compul-
sory at Primary level, ostensibly to appease concerned language pedagogues,
suggests an ad hoc approach to policy making. The Languages Review (2007)
was launched to address the unexpected downward trend in KS4 language learn-
ing since 2004. Its many suggestions were largely not implemented. Instead,
the already apparent trends in social division and elitism in language learning
(Pachler, 2007) were allowed to aggravate, year on year.
In a parallel development, increasing devolution of power to schools, notably
Academies and Free schools, permitted great freedom of school management to
determine their students’ access to language learning. School managements are
increasingly left to decide on their language policies. These conditions lead to
higher achieving schools, and those with predominantly middle class intake,
offer­ing stronger language provision than less well performing schools, with
lower SES intake (Lanvers 2016) academically high achieving schools, with pre-
dominantly middle class intake, now have strong languages departments, leaving
less well achieving school, with typically lower SES intake, with poorer language
provision (Lanvers, 2016).
The social divide in language learning is now unrivalled by that in any other
subject. Language planners observed that language planners are rarely ideolog-
ically neutral Ricento (2000). The case of UK language education, policy suggest
that planners must either condone or tolerate the elitist tendencies in language
learning, given that academics warned of such developments (e.g. Pachler, 2007).
The frequency policy intervention overall does not suggest mere political inertia;
either makers are condoning the elitist trend, if not deliberately orchestrating it.
Any language education policy aspiring to reduce this social divide would
need to address two issues: ensuring equal opportunities for language learning
by making language learning comprehensively accessible for all up to age 16, and
offering clear rationales that embrace the full functional and personal enrich-
ment spectrum, including the many societal benefits of language skills for all.
At first sight, the focus of the two Governmental reports on functional skills
for business and trade seem a logical way forward to rationalize comprehensive
language education. However, the danger associated with functional rationales

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68   Ursula Lanvers

alone  – even if adopting a cold blooded calculation of “return on (education)

investment” – is spelt out by Board & Tinsley (2013), termed balancing factors by
them: adopting this view, the saturation of English in key target countries (eco-
nomic partners) reduces or might even negate the need for future UK language
Using this argument, letting just sufficient numbers of linguists to progress to
just sufficient proficiency levels in strategic target languages (i.e. countries with
low English saturation) represents a clever solution to an economic cost – benefit
analysis (“there must come a point at which returns diminish”, Stables, 2009: 158).
In this logic, educating just the few, who are already bestowed, by virtue of their
upbringing, with sufficient social capital to appreciate the full advantages lan-
guages, makes economic and policy sense.
For students who have opted to study languages, calculations on economic
benefits studying languages reveal a mixed picture: by salary outcomes of grad-
uates, language degree student have a lower than average wage return on their
study investment (Chowdry et al., 2013: 81). As with languages as degree subject,
student’s degree choices generally strongly correlate with SES: “deprivation
seems to be associated with choosing degree subjects with clear economic returns
in the labour market” (Chowdry et al., 2013: 86).
Thus, while languages graduates can yield return on their educational invest-
ment, other (vocational) subjects offer better returns, leaving students from
affluent SES who can afford to worry less about their “economic return” of their
degree, to opt for subjects such as languages.
In this manner, (lack of) choice of Secondary school, language learning
opportunities within schools, students” validation of personal enrichment
factors of education, and opportunities to reap investment on educational return,
mutually reinforce each other, benefiting those with the most felicitous starting
conditions. The circle of opportunities and motivations for language is learning
presented in Figure I:

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 Elitism in language learning in the UK   69

SES background
valuing education
for personal

focus on personal opportunities to

enrichment of choose schools
language learning

school language
HE degree choice learning
less focused on opportunities
economic return (selective &

Figure 1: Circle of opportunities and motivations for language learning

To improve widening access to HE generally, studies have shown that interven-

tions at KS4 would be most effective (Chowdry et al., 2013: 87). For languages, this
would mean re-introducing compulsory GCSE languages, or, at the very least, lev-
elling access across the SES spectrum, to schools with strong language provision.
So long as language policy lacks clear underlying rationales, and ignores the
many personal – enrichment and societal benefits of language skills, language
tuition in the UK will continue to face the ever growing threat of Global English,
and saturation of English in strategic trading partner countries. The danger of
the “balancing factor” argument alone is evidenced poor learner motivation, poor
language education polices, and the increasing social divide in language learn-
ing, in the US, Australia and New Zealand (Australian, 2013; LoBianco, 2009;
Wiley, 2007).
The analysis of current language policy has revealed that the UK elitist trend
in language learning is a near-inevitable outcome of a liberalized language
policy, despite evidence to the fact that language skills, are needed “not simply
by an internationally mobile elite” (Tinsley, 2013: 16). So long as i) rationales for
languages stay within the functional domain ii) language needs are considered
to be “counter-balanced” by English capacities of others, in rather transparent
linguistic chauvinism, education policies will not address the systematic disad-
vantaging of language learners from lower SES.

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70   Ursula Lanvers

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