Poorer students 'alienated' by GCSE languages tests

Personal questions about skiing holidays or family life can make disadvantaged pupils feel uncomfortable, teachers warn

Claudia Civinini

Concerns have been raised about the content in questions in modern foreign languages GCSEs

The content of the GCSE foreign language tests disadvantages students from less privileged backgrounds, according to the teachers who took part in a survey run by the National Association of Language Advisers.

The initial findings of the survey, due to be published in full in the autumn, show that the personal focus of the subject content poses challenges for students by asking them questions in which their experience may be limited or sensitive.


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More than four in five respondents (85 per cent) said that given their social backgrounds, some or all of their students would have difficulty answering GCSE speaking or writing test questions.

Concern over GCSE foreign languages test topics

Almost all respondents (96 per cent) pointed out that the personal content of GCSE speaking and writing questions makes students feel uncomfortable and this has a significant impact on their performance and motivation.

“I was this child at school who always had to ask, eg, ‘How do I say dead?’ when the question was to describe your dad,” commented one of the respondents to the survey.

Another point made by almost all respondents (96 per cent) was that students who have limited experience of the topic at hand (for example, describing their last family holiday) may have a hard time making up an answer.

One respondent said: “Pupils without disposable income or experience of travel and many other privileges feel alienated by a lot of the topics.”

Another pointed out: “One photo card last year expected pupils to talk about a skiing holiday. Some of mine live on the 14th floor and have never left Wigan.”

The interim results are based on the responses of 375 teachers, teacher trainers and consultants. The survey will close on Monday, 7 September 2020 and a full report of the findings will be published in the autumn.

The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.

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Claudia Civinini

Claudia Civinini

Find me on Twitter @claudiacivinini

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