'Pure fantasy': GCSE language reforms under fire

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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It is “pure fantasy” to imagine that controversial changes to the way GCSE French, Spanish and German are assessed will lead to 90 per cent of pupils taking these subjects.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has delivered a withering verdict on the reforms to the qualifications, which were confirmed by the Department for Education (DfE, 2022) last week.

The revised GCSEs are to be taught from September 2024 and the DfE says the updated curriculum for GCSE French, German and Spanish will “make learning languages more accessible”.

The reforms will see pupils assessed on the most common vocabulary used in conversations and writing.

Proposals to test pupils on knowing 1,200 words at foundation tier and 1,700 words at higher tier have, after consultation, been tweaked. Students will now be assessed on the basis of 1,200 or 1,700 “word families” – for example “manage”, “managed” and “manages”. The DfE says the changes will make it “clearer what they need to know”.

Exam boards will select topics and themes to inform the selection of key vocabulary and at least 85 per cent of the “word families” will be “selected from the 2,000 most frequently occurring words in a language to make sure students have a good knowledge of the most common words”.

But Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, warns that “memorising a long list of words will alienate pupils and prove counter-productive” and will make the GCSEs “prescriptive and grinding”.

Last year, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on MFL also called for the reforms to be suspended after it was “struck by the number of teachers, school leaders, linguists and education experts contesting the theoretical basis for the reforms”.

A position statement (APPG, 2021) added: “At a time when languages are already uniquely fragile in English schools, the proposals in their present form represent a fundamental change to the nature of language learning, with unclear evidence that the approach would be successful in relation either to raising standards or increasing take-up.

“The proposals appear to reduce the subject content and exclude integral aspects of language learning that should be taught at this level.”

First exams for the revised GCSEs will by held in 2026. The reforms are part of the DfE’s plans to see 90 per cent of year 10 pupils study GCSEs in EBacc subjects by 2025. The key barrier to this goal is the low take-up of languages GCSE – currently 46 per cent.

Exams watchdog Ofqual has confirmed the assessment approach, setting out the revised assessment objectives in its consultation response (2022).

It has also confirmed that the current use of tiered assessments and non-exam assessment will continue: “Continued use of non-exam assessment to focus on the assessment of speaking skills, which make up 25 per cent of the total marks for the qualification.”

The reforms will also reduce the number of assessment objectives to three – understanding and responding to spoken language (35 per cent), understanding and responding to written language (45 per cent), and the application of grammar and vocabulary (20 per cent).

Ofqual is now to conduct a public technical consultation on the details of assessment requirements and then exam boards will develop GCSE specifications, ready to be taught from September 2024.

Schools minister Robin Walker said: “We want more young people to take up modern language GCSEs, and these evidence-based changes aim to do just that – making these qualifications more well-rounded and accessible, and helping more young people to enjoy learning languages.”

However, Mr Barton responded: “We are very disappointed the government has decided to press ahead with these reforms to French, German and Spanish GCSEs, which largely overlook the widespread concerns of many language experts.

“We fear that rather than encouraging the take-up of languages, a curriculum which mainly focuses on memorising a long list of words will alienate pupils and prove counter-productive.

“At a time when pupils need to be enthused to learn languages, the government has chosen to make GCSEs both prescriptive and grinding. The idea that this will help it fulfil its target of 90 per cent of pupils taking up these subjects is pure fantasy.”


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