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Spanish in the United Kingdom’s secondary education (GCSE) and post-16 education (A levels)

Pre-university education in the United Kingdom is divided into five different Key Stages. Key Stages 1 and 2 (KS1 & KS2) comprise the whole primary education, year 1 and 2 for KS1, and years 3 to 6 for KS2.


Secondary education includes KS3 –years 7 to 9- and KS4 –years 10 and 11. Is at the end of KS4, in year 11, when students take the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams that will count towards their future university admission.


Finally, KS5 including years 12 and 13, also known as sixth form where students face A levels subject, concludes the students’ education until they are 18 years old. Although education in UK is compulsory until turning 18, there are alternatives to KS5 in case the teenagers choose not to go to university.


While foreign language teaching in secondary education has been widely discussed by policy makers and clear strategies have been stated, the case is quite different in primary education. Along KS1 and KS2 pupils from different parts of UK have very different experiences. This is, among other reasons, because it has not yet made clear the amount of time which primary teachers should devote to language teaching.



Spanish teaching in GCSE (KS3 and KS4)


Is in year 7, first one of the secondary education curriculum, when British students start a proper foreign language education. In most of the cases this experience reaches its highest point when facing the GCSE exam at the end of year 11, although some students decide to continue their foreign language learning across years 12 and 13 taking A levels subjects (KS5, also sixth form).


According to the British Council report “Language Trends England 2020. Language teaching in primary and secondary schools in England”, although entries in GCSE languages have suffered an important decrease since 2005, there are signs of an increase in 2018 and 2019.


This is the case of French and Spanish, although German in contrast continued to suffer a small decline in the same two years period. Other foreign languages, with numbers of students far below French, Spanish or German, neither show any increase in this period.


While in 2018 and 2019 French increased by almost 4%, Spanish did by 7,5%. Importantly, although French still remains the most popular foreign language along KS3 and KS4, it looks set to be overtaken by Spanish by 2030, or earlier, if current trends continue.


English Baccalaureate (EBacc)


UK leaving the European Union –Brexit- could be considered to have some implications in foreign language teaching in secondary education in the UK. Even though, state schools accept this issue as a much smaller challenge compared to other practical considerations like the nature and content of external exams or the marking and grading of them.


Instead of being on a weak position, foreign languages in secondary education are considered as one of the five pillars of the government’s English Baccalaureate (EBacc). This is a measure of school performance that takes into account foreign languages teaching alongside with four other subjects: English, mathematics, the sciences, and geography or history.


The EBacc shows the proportion of children in a secondary school who achieve a grade C or more in these five core academic subjects said before, subjects that are considered essential to many degrees and open up lots of doors.


This fact has been demonstrated by a research of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, UCL Institute of Education (University College London). The report shows that studying subjects included in the EBacc provides students with greater opportunities in further education, as well as increases the likelihood that a pupil will stay on in full-time education. Also a The Sutton Trust research reveals that studying the EBacc can help improve a young person’s performance in English and maths.


Given the demonstrated benefits of following the EBacc, that includes a foreign language, the importance of Spanish as a faster growing subject in GCSE exams is clear. The government’s ambition is to see 75% of pupils studying the EBacc subject combination at GCSE by 2022, and 90% by 2025, so the increase of Spanish as a GCSE subject is guaranteed.


Spanish in A levels (KS5 or sixth form)


At A levels, Spanish entries have increased by almost 5% from 2018, already overtaking French as the most popular language for the first time since A levels began, just as previous Language Trends (British Council) reports predicted. Since 2005, French and German have both experienced steep declines, but Spanish has grown almost year on year.


Compared to French and German, Spanish also enjoys a higher percentage of GCSE pupils continuing to A levels: from the 2017 GCSE cohort, 6.3% of candidates in French and 6.9% of candidates in German converted to full A levels in 2019; in Spanish the conversion rate was a healthier 9.3%.


In other words, almost one in every ten candidates of GCSE Spanish chooses to continue with the language to A levels. As we said before, in accordance with this conversion rate Spanish is the most taught language post-16.


As a summary we can state the growing importance of Spanish as a foreign language subject in the British secondary curriculum. In contrast to what is happening to other languages like German, enrolment of students in Spanish subject is not declining but steadily increasing. Spanish still has some margin to develop, especially in GCSE where it is expected to overtake French in the coming years. Moreover Spanish is already the most popular option among foreign languages for sixth form students taking A level subjects before entering university, what is of especial interest taking into account that A levels subjects conform a very specialized profile for future professional careers.


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