German GCSE skiing question highlights 'class biases'

MFL teachers say elitist questions are to blame for the decline in pupils taking languages

Catherine Lough


A recent AQA examiners’ report on GCSE German has highlighted middle-class biases in modern foreign language exams, teachers have said.

Ruth Wilkes, principal of Castle Newnham School in Bedford, posted a photograph of the AQA examiners’ report for a GCSE German oral exam, where it was reported that: “Some students struggled to state advantages and/or disadvantages of a skiing holiday.”

Ms Wilkes said the question would put students from poorer families who did not take foreign holidays at a disadvantage.

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“Pupils who’ve experienced a ski holiday are much more likely to be able to infer the answer to that particular question than those who haven’t, whatever their proficiency in the language, making such a question particularly unfair,” she said.

She added there was a growing group of languages teachers who wanted the curriculum to be reviewed.

“Generally there’s a perception in the UK that languages are for an elite few," Ms Wilkes said.

"At my school, we ensure that all pupils study a language right up to 16, but when specifications and exam questions focus on skiing holidays, staying in holiday cottages and the like, it’s not surprising that schools nationally struggle with uptake of languages.

“Learning a language should be a joy for the soul and not just an area of study with a vague promise of utility later in life when, for example, on a skiing holiday!” 

A secondary languages teacher based in London said the comment in the examiners’ report was “rather a crass remark” which “illustrated the class biases of the MFL curriculum”.

“Lots of the questions you get in MFL are really contingent on students’ own lives – their hobbies, their parents’ careers, what they’d like to do. But we should be examining students on the content they are taught, not their social capital,” he said.

“MFL is basically disappearing – this is no surprise whatsoever given how alienating the curriculum can be.

“This kind of question is an additional demand [for disadvantaged students] – if you’re someone who goes on holiday, holidays are a natural thing to talk about; if you don’t, then they’re not.”

Ms Wilkes’ photograph was retweeted by the user ‘Transform MFL’, who commented: “What’s next, AQA? 'Describe the last time you went water skiing?' 'Pros and cons of having a country house?' 'How do you eat your chateaubriand?'"

And Elaine Whittingham, an MFL teacher from Manchester, said it was frustrating to teach a subject that seemed to be only aimed at “advantaged, upper/middle class children”.

Another user, who is a head of department for MFL, said: “I’ve never been skiing either, I’d struggle with that!”

An AQA spokesperson pointed out the question on skiing was part of a photo card speaking test in GCSE German which is designed for students to use the knowledge and structures they have learned.

“The question paper for this test has tasks covering lots of different topics. To suggest one question out of five questions on one task creates a cultural bias across an entire exam is false and misleading,” the spokesperson said.

“This is just an excerpt from an examiner’s report being shared out of context on Twitter and no one raised any concerns with us at the time of the exam. The question was a test of vocabulary that students will have learned – not their experiences.”

“We work hard to make our qualifications relevant and accessible to students of all backgrounds and we involve teachers at every stage to make sure we’re getting it right.”

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