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Language travel still popular for UK students, with Spain gaining foothold

Despite headlines reporting drops in language studies in schools across the UK, youngsters from secondary schools around the UK are continuing to travel overseas in busloads, educational tour operators have said. And Spain – and its language – is becoming increasingly popular.

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Language is not the sole subject school students are travelling overseas

However, concerns surrounding Brexit and safety have caused issues of their own, and the lower uptake of languages at GCSE level is reflected in language travel industry trends.

The British Council’s Language Trends 2019 report found that entries for GCSE languages had declined by 19% over the past five years. French and German GCSE candidate levels saw reductions of 30%, the report explained.

“Spanish language trips are getting very close to the demand for French language”

At A-level, between 2017 and 2018, German was down by 16%, French by 7%,  and Spanish by 3%. However, provisional entry figures for 2019 show Spanish candidate numbers increasing by 10% and French increasing by 4%.

German instead is set to continue to fall by 2.5%.

Of the 776 primary schools and 845 secondary schools surveyed for this report, 8% said they had offered school trips abroad in the previous year.

In last year’s survey, that number was 12%, but more respondents were included in the 2019 report.

Michelle Evans, head of product & marketing at educational tour operator NST noted that a large proportion of its language trips were for students under GCSE age.

“Teachers are trying to engage the students in lower secondary years in languages, so that they can encourage them to take that subject at GCSE,” she told The PIE News.

“Having looked over the last 10 years, what we have seen in terms of demand for our language trips has reflected slightly what is happening in the education market.”

However, safety concerns have caused drops over the past few years, according to the educational tour operator.

“There was a spate of terrorist attacks in 2015/16 in France in particular – demand for French language declined quite a bit.”

The safety aspect of travelling was increasingly important for schools, she said. Confidence returned to the market in 2018, Evans indicated, although demand has not hit 2012/13 levels.

Government policy has focused on improving safety, Evans indicated.

In November, as part of its policy on educational trips, the Department of Education introduced a Learning Outside the Classroom Quality Badge giving schools more guidance on safety and educational content when choosing a provider, Evans said.

Despite the British Council’s paper reporting ongoing concern in uptake of languages in UK schools, these travel operators remain optimistic for the future.

“Year on year we are growing as a company, and [after] our ski department, languages is the next biggest product area,” said Rachael McLoughlin, head of language tours, at Halsbury Travel.

“We have had no sign of a slowdown in any department yet, despite all of the Brexit uncertainties.”

With its appeal to a wide variety of schools, and all budgets groups, France is Halsbury Travel’s biggest single destination, followed by Spain and Germany.

“Teachers of German seem to be really passionate about it”

“Part of the reason that France remains such a popular destination is that French is still taught broadly across the country.”

The country also offers a range of possibilities from one day visits, to five days for language study, to overnight stops for Christmas markets, McLoughlin said. “And it remains so accessible by coach.”

Around five years ago, Germany was the second most popular trip for NST behind France.

“French-language [trips] have always been number one for us,” Evans noted.

“Spanish is definitely on the increase, and Spanish for us has overtaken the German language. I think that is reflective of what is happening in schools with uptake and popularity of the language in schools,” she added.

“Spanish language trips are getting very close to the demand for the French language. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the next five years it takes over.”

While enquiries have been declining for German, booking numbers have remained relatively static.

“Those teachers of German seem to be really passionate about it. When they decide to take a trip, they are definitely going on that trip.”

However, language is not the sole subject students are travelling overseas for.

Demand for STEM subjects has increased, Evans highlighted. Destinations like CERN in Geneva has seen huge interest, she said, while Iceland ticks a lot of the boxes for environmental science classes.

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