Four is the magic number at Glenalmond College

Glenalmond College’s Jenny Davey describes the school’s recent decision to insist that every pupil study four subjects in their lower sixth year…

The studying of foreign languages has been much in the news recently. Fresh concerns have been raised as new figures show a large slump in the number of young people applying to study the subject area at university.

According to analysis by the Press Association, the numbers of applications for degree courses linked to European languages have fallen by almost a quarter in the past five years, while the numbers for other language courses have dropped by almost a fifth.

Simultaneously there has been a decline in the numbers studying languages traditionally offered by schools, such as French and German, at GCSE and A-level.

Jocelyn Wyburd, Director of the highly respected Cambridge Language Centre commented that, “Young people now need higher levels of linguistic competence, cultural knowledge and insights, and the cross-cultural agility of the ‘transnational graduate’ required by today’s global society.”

To this backdrop, I firmly believe that Glenalmond College has made the right decision to continue to insist that all pupils study four subjects – and frequently including a foreign language – in their lower sixth year, while simultaneously embracing the flexibility and breadth offered by Scottish Highers.  

Sitting talking to two fifth form (Year 11) pupils last week, conversation drifted from preparing for their speaking tests to the upcoming Parents’ Evening and Sixth Form Options Talk.

Jenny Davey 

Faced with an array of subjects, some of which the pupils have never studied, the boys were entitled to feel somewhat hesitant about their best educational route. After all, how many of us knew what we wanted to do at 15? Precious few, I imagine.    

What happens if you are trying to keep your options open? Their dilemma is one shared by many Year 11 pupils; all the more so since the curriculum reforms, introduced over the last couple of years, mean that for many pupils, it is no longer a choice of four subjects, but three. 

The phrase ‘Three + Enrichment’ is a much-used, UK-wide phrase. Some British schools go to extraordinary lengths to fill time left by the dropped fourth A-level but, all-too-often, not by adding extra teaching, which is too expensive and difficult to timetable.  

The reduction from four to three A-level subjects has undoubtedly had an effect on foreign language teaching in many schools. Previously, pupils could add a language to their humanities, sciences or tech choices and thus be a scientist with French. Now though, this has become far more difficult, if not impossible, for many faced with the need to pick only three subjects.  

Not so at Glenalmond. We have pupils who take a language as their fourth subject, sitting the higher examination at the end of lower sixth, and then concentrate on their other three subjects in their final year. This results in them getting a qualification for their year of study and being able to decide over that year whether they wish to continue with the language at A-level.  

Looking to the pupil’s future, it can only be to their advantage to be able to compete in the increasingly tough world of global recruitment, having combined their core subjects with the ability to communicate in another language.  

Someone needed to visit our Madrid office? Don’t worry, I can do that… 

To learn more about Glenalmond College, visit

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