Language participation in NSW secondary schools

This literature review was originally published 02 March 2018.

Image: Language participation in NSW secondary schools



Language participation in NSW secondary schools has been in decline since the 1960s. Only around 10% of students in NSW now take a language for the Higher School Certificate (HSC), despite a range of policies1 to try to arrest the decline. The decline in student numbers is particularly noticeable from the beginning of the middle years of secondary high school onwards.

This paper provides a brief overview of languages education in Australia and NSW, including participation rates and national and state policy. It then goes on to review the research around school and classroom factors which can increase language participation. This paper is intended as a companion piece to the Centre for Education Statistic and Evaluation’s (2018) case studies on language participation in NSW secondary schools in Years 9 to 12.

Languages education in Australia and NSW

Language participation in Australian schools over time

In Australia in the 1960s, around 40% of students took a foreign or classical language (usually French, Latin or German) for the HSC equivalent. However, in the late 1960s, universities began to drop the entry requirement for students to have a second language; and the Wyndham report in NSW oversaw the removal of languages as a core requirement of secondary education (Wyndham 1957)6. There was a subsequent rapid drop in the numbers of students studying a second language at the secondary school level from 40% in the 1960s, to around 10% in the 1970s (Lo Bianco 2009, p. 20). At this time, according to Lo Bianco (2009), languages education in Australia moved away from ‘elite languages taught for elite reasons at high school’ to ‘community languages taught for community purposes in primary schools’. Liddicoat et al. (2007) states that primary school students now account for the largest proportion of school students studying languages in Australia.

Today, only around 10% of students take a language for the HSC (NESA7 2016). The most popular languages studied for the HSC are French, Japanese, Chinese and Italian (NESA 2016). The majority of students who study languages are concentrated in metropolitan schools, particularly schools in Sydney’s east or north (BOSTES 2013). Over the past decade, the number of languages offered in Australian universities has also dropped from 66 to 29 (Group of Eight 2007), presumably reflecting the decreasing enrolments in languages education in Australian schools.

Languages education in NSW

In NSW, students must study 100 hours of one language in one continuous 12 month period in Stage 4 or Stage 5. This mostly takes place in Years 7 and/or 8. The NESA K-10 syllabuses in 17 languages are used to deliver the mandatory language requirement (BOSTES, 2013). At the Australian level, ACARA released Foundation to Year 10 Australian syllabuses for 14 languages in 2014 (Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Modern Greek, Spanish, Turkish, Vietnamese and a framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander languages). Students can take a language as an elective subject in Years 9 and 10. However, the numbers of students taking a language in NSW schools drops off dramatically when languages become elective. For example, in 2016, only 5,850 Year 9 students (out of 50,365) and only 5,410 Year 10 students (out of 52,355) in NSW public schools elected to study a language (NSW Education Datahub 2017).

At the senior secondary level, numbers of students studying languages fall even further. In NSW, 66 language courses are available at the senior secondary level, including Beginners, Continuers, Extension, Language in Context (formerly Heritage) and Language and Literature (formerly Background Speakers) courses9. However, only around 10% of students choose to take a language for the HSC (NESA 2016)10. In 2015, the NSW Premier made an election promise to boost the number of students learning languages through an additional $400,000 for community language schools in NSW and providing greater access for rural and remote students to languages through the new virtual high school (NSW Government 2015).

Between 2012 and 2014, NESA undertook a review of languages education in NSW called ‘Learning through languages’. The review was guided by five terms of reference, including investigation of current languages education from pre-school to Year 12, both in and out of school settings, and review of student demand for languages courses in senior secondary school. Key stakeholders were consulted as part of the review process, including students, teachers, parents and community organisations. The findings revealed that the reasons why students do not continue with language study in Years 9 and 10 include: negative language experiences in primary school and Years 7 and 8 (including lack of progress, and lack of prior learning recognition in Years 7 and 8); the low parental and community value placed on language learning; the perception that language study is ‘too hard’ and/or ‘only for more able students’; and the wide range of other subjects (including vocational education) available that are perceived as more vocationally relevant (BOSTES 2013). It is also known that policy changes in other areas of education can affect language participation.

Classroom- and school-based factors in language participation

According to Liddicoat et al (2007), languages education in Australia is not driven by languages policy, but rather determined locally without necessarily referring to overarching policy11. Certainly, the fact that the variety of languages policies in Australia to date have generally not been effective in raising language participation supports this argument.

Liddicoat et al (2007) go on to say that local factors are some of the most important factors in determining the nature of language learning in schools, regardless of whether there are explicit policy requirements or not. These local factors relate to teachers (the qualifications, proficiency and passion of individual teachers), schools (the strength of support for languages, including high expectations for languages as a whole) and communities (engagement with, and support from, the local community). The Asia Education Foundation (2012) similarly states that the most important factors influencing student desire to study a language are the quality of the learning context, the teacher and self-perceived interest.

Some of these local factors, and their potential impact on language participation, are explored in more detail below, namely: high-quality teaching, student motivation, use of technology, whole-school approaches and effective leadership.


This paper has provided an overview of languages education in Australia, including why second languages are important, language participation over time, and an outline of national and state language education policies and language education in NSW. It has described the importance of local factors to language participation in schools, and summarised what some of these local factors are. These factors include high-quality teaching, student motivation, use of ICT, effective leadership, and whole-school approaches.

1 Policy in this paper is used in its broadest sense to refer to statements, programs and initiatives as outlined by government and its associated agencies. It does not refer to mandated actions (unless otherwise specified).

6 The Wyndham report was a NSW government policy but it set a precedent that was adopted Australia-wide.

7 The NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) was formerly known as BOSTES. References in this paper prior to 2016 refer to ‘BOSTES’, references after this time refer to ‘NESA’.

8 This is considered one of the most successful national language policies to date.

9 Not all course variations are available for all languages.

10 It is worth noting that there is also a small group of students in NSW who study the International Baccalaureate (IB) as opposed to the HSC in Years 11 and 12. Study of a foreign language is compulsory for the IB. The IB is not available in public schools, but is offered in a select number of independent and Catholic schools in NSW.

11 This is not to say languages education cannot or should not be policy driven, just that in Australia this approach has been reasonably ineffectual to date.


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