Exam board chief: 'Unless we act soon, even GCSE French and German could face the chop'

The reasons behind the drop-off in up-take of language learning in schools are many and manifold, writes Paul Steer, head of policy at the OCR exam board

Paul Steer

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The furore around the announcement by some exam boards that they will no longer provide GCSEs and/or A-levels in ‘lesser-taught’ languages such as Turkish, Polish, Urdu and Gujarati begs some big questions. Given that the boards are a mixture of not-for-profits and commercial organisations, it is clear this is not simply a matter of money. The challenges are systemic and the root causes are a mixture of cultural attitudes, failed infrastructures and policy failures over many years.

Formal education has seen an overall decline in the study of traditionally taught foreign languages – French, German, etc – while the study of lesser-taught and community languages has failed to grow. 

Any rational analysis of trends in school language education reveals that all languages, apart from English, are in danger of becoming ‘lesser taught’. The number of A-levels awarded in all available languages in 2011 was 40,685 and by the summer of 2014 it was 32,680. Many languages departments in universities are facing a real threat of extinction. Unless something is done soon to correct this we will wake up one morning to learn that GCSE French and German are also for the chop.

The problems go back a long way; they were already being described as historic by the last Labour government, when it launched its ambitious 2002 National Languages Strategy. Back in a time of plenty, this strategy set out an agenda for the coming decade and promised "to achieve a step-change in language competency in this country". It called on a wide range of communities, educators, employers and institutions to work together to see languages learning embedded from early years through to higher education, in communities and in the workplace.

But for all its emphasis on grassroots, the strategy was characterised by a series of centrally set targets to be driven forward by what was then an extensive machinery of state (LEAs, LSC, SSCs, SSDA, Ofsted, QCA, NACELL, SLCs, Becta, etc), all to be coordinated by a national director of languages. In the end, it was more like an inventory of disparate initiatives and quangos with overlapping authorities and vague accountabilities. By the time the money ran out and a new government instigated a ‘bonfire of the quangos’, the strategy was already doomed.

There are two legacies of the strategy that should not be forgotten. One, in 2004, was the removal of the statutory requirement to provide language learning at Key Stage 4 in schools. This was well-intentioned; the mandatory study of a language was leading to a lot of disaffected young people having to sit through French lessons for two years with little prospect of picking up more than a single phrase, let alone a GCSE. But the result of the policy was a massive drop in take up of languages at GCSE and an exodus of language teachers from the profession. The teaching infrastructure for languages has never really recovered from this; this is probably also the point at which, for OCR, the provision of language GCSEs, complete with their complex assessment model, dipped into the red.

The second legacy, more short-lived, was the development of a new set of qualifications. The Labour government declared, “We will introduce a new voluntary recognition system to complement existing national qualifications frameworks... This would give people credit for their language skills and form a ladder of recognition which sits alongside GCSE, A Level and NVQs.” This hit on an important point – that existing language qualifications were not flexible enough to support the delivery of languages across a wide range of contexts.

This part of the strategy led OCR to develop Asset Languages, a first class product, providing assessment and support materials from primary to adult, from school to work, from beginner to undergraduate. At its peak, we offered 25 different languages including all major European languages, and an impressive range of other languages including Mandarin, Gujarati and Cornish.

As the languages strategy began to decompose and funding melted away the vision for Asset as a national solution began to wither as well. OCR was finally forced to serve notice on these qualifications (472 of them) in 2012 after a survey of the dwindling customer base. Labour’s short-lived Diploma in Languages went the same way.

Before long, exam boards were investing again, this time in developing English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) for a high-stakes coalition government franchise. After the exam boards had sunk huge costs into this project, the government announced in February 2013 that the franchise plan had been abandoned. Instead, exam boards should begin on a qualification reform programme involving the redevelopment of every GCSE and A-level they offered. The reformed qualifications would be linear and early entries and resits would be heavily reduced, cutting exam boards’ potential future income by roughly a third.

The coalition government’s interest in language education has been limited to GCSEs and A-levels. The introduction of the EBac school performance measure saw the inclusion of GCSE languages within this measure and this provided a fillip to entries in MFL in the summer of 2013. But 2014 entries suggest, however, that this has been more of a blip as schools work out how they can achieve the EBac and the forthcoming Progress 8 measures without languages.

The EBac puts languages into an unashamedly academic core; Ancient Greek and Latin are also included and the then education secretary Michael Gove lauded the intellectual discipline that comes with mastering another language. Vocational language qualifications are not included as school performance indicators, so Mandarin for business, French for cabin crews and others were off the menu. There is no evidence that the young people who would have been involved in these are now taking language GCSEs instead, and it seems more likely that most will no longer be exposed to any foreign language learning.

If its policies have marginalised vocational language learning, the coalition government has been silent on the issue of community and lesser-taught languages. Occasionally there have been nods towards increasing learning in economically important languages such as Mandarin, but the mechanisms for increasing the number of teachers and widening demand are sketchy. There seems to be no view on the use of language GCSEs in communities where that language is widely spoken. It has no view as to whether GCSE languages achieved by native speakers of that language should count towards performance tables.

Meanwhile, the current qualification reform programme is creating immense pressure on the system through its complexity and ambitious timescales. It requires routine and frequent meetings between the boards, Ofqual and the DfE. In October 2014 such a meeting was used to revisit in detail issues that had been raised in relation to the lesser taught languages. All boards were concerned about issues of comparability, costs of development, quality assurance of papers, shortage of assessors and more. The department was asked to consider recognition of alternative qualifications, whether there could be a review of the existing range of languages (which had been in place since 1994) and whether it had a role in securing continuity of provision. Crucially, the boards asked whether the DfE would provide an environment for them to discuss how they might collaborate over offering these costly subjects without falling foul of competition law. In the end, none of these issues were resolved.

Policy decisions made in haste (or the heat of an election) are often repented at leisure. If politicians insist that exam boards continue to offer community and lesser taught languages then three things MUST happen: 

1. Teaching must be well resourced – teachers must be available to assist the development and running of learning programmes.

2. The infrastructure must support rigorous and robust examination – this requires input from external subject experts to ensure that the content is accurate and up-to date. Recruitment of assessors who have a teaching qualification and the right expertise in both the target language of the qualification and in assessment, is a particular risk with ‘minority’ languages. 

3. Key drivers must be in place - unless there is some provision in league tables or Ofsted’s assessment of schools it is unlikely that the critical mass will be reached.  

OCR has not ruled out developing GCSEs and A-levels, but only if these matters are addressed will uptake rise.

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Paul Steer

Paul Steer is head of policy at the OCR exam board

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