MFL challenges under discussion at Westminster Education Forum


The challenge of driving take-up of languages and the fight for fairer grading were among key discussions at a meeting of the Westminster Education Forum. Suzi Bewell was there


Never before, it would seem, have languages teachers in the UK been faced with so much change in such a short space of time. Last September saw the welcome introduction of languages to the key stage 2 curriculum along with a slimmed-down, new programme of study at key stage 3. In the next two years we will also see the introduction of the new A level and GCSE exams.

At a recent Westminster Education Forum – entitled The future for modern foreign languages at GCSE and A level – the audience heard that languages take-up at GCSE is continuing to rise, but that the picture at A level is more complex.

The decision in the early 2000s to remove the compulsory status of languages at GCSE is generally accepted as leading to the decline in take-up in subsequent years. 

Indeed, Bernadette Holmes, director of the Speak to the Future campaign – which works to highlight the importance of languages and language learning for the UK – described the policy move as “well-intentioned”, but something which had had an “extraordinary effect” on take-up in schools.

However, Teresa Tinsley, joint author of the CfBT and British Council annual Language Trends survey, revealed that this year’s findings for GCSE language entries show that 49 per cent of the current cohort are taking a language – up from 40 per cent in 2011. The rising numbers are generally attributed to the English Baccalaureate performance table measure.

At A level the picture is more complex, given that there is currently no policy for languages beyond key stage 4, and Ms Tinsley warned against presuming that the influence of the EBacc would reach up to A level.

She told delegates: “There’s a sort of expectation that the EBacc will in itself lift numbers post-16, but in fact our research shows the situation at post-16 is actually very, very concerning.

“It’s not to say that people don’t recognise that learning a language is a good thing, but compared to other subjects, when they’re up against other subjects, they don’t stand up.”

Despite the rising numbers at GCSE, Lid King, director of the Languages Company, voiced concerns that our young people are becoming “increasingly excluded from the multilingual world”.

Ms Tinsley warned that it is not teachers or students who are to blame, but often the influence of school performance tables or the assessment system.

She explained: “The real problem is the performance tables and the assessment system, rather than the teaching and demotivation by pupils. Pupils want to take a language very often, but they are advised not to, or they decide not to because they think, ‘well I’m very worried about my grades, I think I will get a higher grade with another subject’.”

Helen Myers, chair of the Association for Language Learning (ALL) London branch, has been fighting for fairer grading in languages at GCSE and A level since 2010.

ALL, alongside the Independent Schools Modern Languages Association (ISMLA) and the Association of School and College Leaders, have been working to draw attention to unreliable grading. For example, they contend that there have been too few A* grades as a proportion of As at languages A level when compared with other subjects.

The campaign helped to spark a review of modern foreign language A* grades and general take-up by the Joint Council for Qualifications last year.

Ms Myers told delegates: “We must address the fundamental issue of grading and incentives if we are to give the subject a fair chance.”

Alongside these discussions, delegates also heard about a number of initiatives seeking to drive take-up of languages.

For example, the British Academy Schools Language Awards offers £4,000 for projects which promote take-up at higher levels in languages. The 2015 awards are now open for entries, with a deadline of June 30 and 14 awards of £4,000 each on offer, including an additional £2,000 for two national winners (see further information).

The British Council also works to support languages education. Representative Vicky Gough discussed their programmes, including helping UK teachers to source foreign language assistants, fostering international school links via eTwinning, and offering funding for teachers to take groups of children to visit their partner schools abroad.

Acknowledging the government focus on STEM subjects, Nick Mair, chairman of ISMLA, encouraged delegates to combine language learning with subjects such as science. He warned that scientists and engineers could be “losing out” if they do not have language skills.

Coming back to the new GCSE and A level examinations, Ms Holmes further stressed the need for motivating and challenging content which convinces language learners that it is worth studying further.

She told delegates: “It does seem perhaps more academic, but if you read carefully, it is not a restrictive curriculum, but an empowering curriculum, a broad and rich curriculum, one that gives due attention to culture, as well as language and to the opportunities of true interdisciplinary learning.”

  • Suzi Bewell is course leader for PGCE MFL at the University of York.

Further information
  • A Review of Modern Foreign Languages at A Level: A* grade and low take up (JCQ, July 2014):
  • The British Academy Schools Language Awards:
  • Advice on combining languages and other subjects:
  • GCSE and A level reform updates from ALL:
Photo: iStock


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