The Best British Schools Championing Languages

By School House

7 years ago

Independent schools are responding to the call to improve children’s language skills with aplomb, says Victoria Lambert

Languages are now a more important part of education than ever before. Find out how schools are instilling a passion for the subject.

Christs Hospital languages

Still embarrassed by your restaurant German or your beach vocab Spanish? You’re probably one of the generations of children perfunctorily force-fed another language – mostly French – by a non-native French teacher with a distinctively plummy English accent and no greater ambition than improving the entente cordiale on holiday. While European friends get by speaking three or more languages with ease, we’re still struggling with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

But are pupils today any better served? The requirement to take a foreign language at GCSE was dropped over ten years ago. Since then, the number of students taking A-levels in foreign languages has steadily declined in England, according to the British Academy, the UK’s expert body, which supports and speaks for the humanities and social sciences.

Yet employers are making it clear that they expect and prefer this type of additional skill and business leaders, in particular, are warning that Britain’s economy is being seriously harmed because of a shortage of foreign language skills, as it deters and impairs small and medium-sized businesses from trading abroad. In fact, according to the government’s statistics, it costs the country 3.5 per cent of GDP (£48bn) every year.

Find out how independent schools are tackling the issue:

St Mary’s Calne

Zoe Ross, head of modern foreign languages ay St Mary’s Calne, explains: ‘Mandarin is compulsory for all girls in years seven and eight. Our aim is to give girls the chance to learn a language that is different from our own and away from the more traditional European languages. Next year the class will include a trip to China, visiting four different cities.

‘Our Mandarin lessons are delivered in small groups, and focus on speaking but also on the skill of being able to write Chinese characters. Our teacher uses a lot of games, videos and competitions within the classes to motivate the girls. We also celebrate Chinese New Year in the school and the native Chinese girls run a chapel.’

Back at St Mary’s Calne, families are requesting their children learn many new languages, says Zoe Ross. ‘Every year we have individual requests for tuition or exam support. This year we have supported Italian, Danish, Russian, Polish, and Cantonese. Already I have requests for Korean and Japanese to be added to those above for next year.’

Nor are languages seen as a hard grind any more, she says. ‘The girls love speaking and showing what they have learnt. This year we have had some very successful topics, including writing children’s stories using an online publishing site. All of our girls from LV upwards have a conversation lesson as well as their classroom lessons, and this is always something they enjoy.’

Kings Monkton

An enlightened approach has also been taken by Kings Monkton, Cardiff, one of the oldest independent schools in Wales and one of a handful to offer Mandarin. It has concentrated on tailoring its tuition to a business use so that lessons have a practical relevance to students. The school has developed links with China, including the China-Britain Business Council, and offers opportunities for students to visit the country as exchange pupils. A native speaker teaching assistant has been ‘invaluable’ says Sally Anderton, head of modern foreign languages, who believes that the key is to introduce children to languages when they are still very young.

‘We start French at three with singing and playlets,’ she says, ‘then add in Mandarin with games and origami. In the senior school we add in Spanish. We also take part in the annual EU day of languages, when we might explore German.’ Of course, the school offers Welsh too; in Wales, lessons in the native tongue are now compulsory in the state sector until the age of 16.

She is in no doubt of its value: ‘Our sixth formers are the most interested as they understand how useful it can be to offer an employer a language – even if your main subject at university is engineering. Languages open doors and set you aside from other job applicants.’ The school offers those learning French and Spanish educational trips to Barcelona and France, including opportunities to take part in apprenticeship placements in the leisure industry.


At Sevenoaks, the breadth of languages offered is also astonishing (including Hindi and Swedish at sixth form). School trips and exchanges take pupils to France, Belgium, China, Germany, Italy, Russia and Spain, while cultural events include visits to art exhibitions or dance shows, or to hear distinguished academics speak on literary and cultural topics.

It’s vital, says Dominic Mott, former head of languages (now at Hurst College), to make topics relevant to the countries and cultures where the languages are spoken. He believes that part of Sevenoaks’ strength lies in having so many native speakers in the department. He praises the foreign language assistants (usually recent graduates), ‘They do a fantastic job in small, weekly conversation lessons to develop fluency.’

Christ’s Hospital

Less talkative pupils may be encouraged to attempt the annual Stephen Spender Prize, which requires entrants to translate a poem from any language, ancient or modern, into English – with two categories for under 18s.

Pupils from Christ’s Hospital school in Sussex were so inspired that they developed an idea; back at school, students were encouraged to draw on their cultural roots for inspiration to translate poems. More than 30 poems were submitted in the end in no fewer than 22 languages, ranging from German, Afrikaans, Montenegrin and Portuguese Creole.

How are languages taught?

Teaching methods are changing, too. There is less emphasis on essay writing (‘What I did at the weekend’) and more effort to engage children in alternative national cultures, which could mean anything, from holding an origami class to eating tapas, celebrating St Nicholas day – filling boarders’ shoes with sweets – or taking part in the Joutes Oratoires, a national debating competition conducted in French.

Many schools now support Joutes Oratoire, won this year by Sevenoaks School, who debated in French that ‘La démocratie est une illusion’ with Westminster School. Hélène May, of St Paul’s Girls’ School, describes the contest as ‘a breath-taking exchange that swept the floor with sheer panache’.

But what of the ancient languages? Research from the University of Cambridge in 2009 found that more state schools taught Latin than independent schools; although 60 per cent of those who do a Latin GCSE are in the private sector.

The problem is two-fold, say the experts. Lack of teachers and pupil disinterest in a GCSE that is seen as too tough – backed up by research from the University of Durham, which suggests that Latin is two grades harder than the average GCSE subject.

Yet, even classics has its modern supporters. The charity, Classics for All, funds teaching in the state sector, plus training and teacher tools applicable to any school.

From ancient to modern, many schools are waking up to the advantages of harnessing technology – Sally Anderton is hoping to set up Skype sessions with pupils in other countries; Godolphin and Latymer School in London already has successful synchronous sessions with Year 9 learners of French in Holland and Year 10 learners of Spanish in Germany. ‘We’re using iPads in the classroom and a particularly good website for developing listening skills:,’ reveals Sevenoaks’ Mr Mott.

And who could resist a trip to the christmas market in Cologne, or a celebration of St Nicholas Day? This, then is the future of language learning: toute carotte et n’est pas de bâton.

No wonder – and thank goodness – there is such a bon appétit in young learners.


READ MORE: Everything you Need to Know About Learning Mandarin