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First step on the ladder

Want your pupils to combine vocational learning with languages? Wendy Adeniji has the answer

What is the German for "hoof" or "fetlock"? If students are studying for an NVQ in horse management, this might be the kind of language they'd like to learn.

Under the flexible Asset Languages scheme, they can study and gain qualifications that are relevant to the subjects they are interested in, even vocational ones.

Asset Languages is the assessment scheme for the Languages Ladder, the six-stage programme introduced by the Government in 2005.

The pupil's growing competence is recognised and accredited step by step, from breakthrough to mastery. Stage 3, intermediate, is equivalent to a higher grade GCSE; while Stage 4, advanced, is equivalent to an A-level.

Accreditation is by internal or external assessment (depending on the level), based on a series of "can do" statements covering the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. The assessment can be taken in any of the four skills and at different levels if appropriate.

The Grove Language College in Market Drayton, Shropshire, adopted the ladder in 2005, and uses it with local feeder primary schools so all the children start secondary school having achieved a level 3 in at least one skill after one year of learning.

Keri Bedford, assistant headteacher with responsibility for languages, says: "The children are engaged with languages before they arrive at secondary school. They know exactly where they are and what they know."

The school also uses the qualifications to accredit language learning in more unusual contexts, such as an NVQ in horse management. The system is flexible so that pupils can gain a language qualification in tandem with an NVQ, which would not be possible through more conventional routes.

Keri believes this flexibility makes it a perfect solution for pupils who want to develop their language skills after key stage 3, but don't want to take a full language course. It means that Year 9 pupils, who traditionally start to switch off, stay motivated.

She says the assessments are straightforward and the ladder fits well with the course content at KS3 and GCSE. And there are five assessment opportunities each year so pupils can be entered when the teacher feels they are ready.

The qualification is subsidised at primary level, costing pound;1 per skill, but the bill can mount up if several pupils are taking it at secondary school level, rising to a price tag comparable to entering pupils for a GCSE.

But Keri believes it's worth the cost because receiving a qualification helps pupils to value their language learning. She particularly recommends it for pupils taking the vocational route.

Debbie Wells, assistant head and language director at Hummersknott Language College in Darlington, County Durham, says the ladder has raised the profile of languages and the motivation of pupils because all Year 9 pupils take the qualification in both the languages they study. They have taken the qualification after a two-week course in Russian or Chinese.

In September, the new national curriculum levels will be harmonised with the ladder

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