Reforms to language GCSEs ‘risk standards’, say MPs

DfE plans to base GCSEs solely on the 2,000 most frequent words will overlook communication skills and culture, say experts

MFL GCSEs

Plans by the Department for Education (DfE) to reform modern foreign languages (MFL) GCSE pose a risk to standards, take-up in the subjects and will widen the difficulty gap between GCSE and A-level, according to MPs, unions and experts.

The DfE is currently consulting on the plans – which include an aim to make GCSEs in languages such as French, German and Spanish “more accessible and motivating for students”.

But MPs on the APPG (All-Party-Parliamentary Group) on Modern Languages say the consultation “does not adequately cover many of the most concerning issues”.


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“Particularly controversial”, according to MPs, is the proposal to base GCSEs solely on the 2,000 most frequent words, which they say is “an approach contested by experts in language acquisition, while leaving out thematic content, communication skills and culture”.

Baroness Coussins, co-chair of the APPG on Modern Languages, said the group of MPs had been inundated with messages of concern from across the sector.

She said: “The DfE has been supportive of languages in the curriculum in recent years but these reforms risk undoing all of that progress.

“Everybody agrees that elements of the current GCSE could be improved but is this the way to go about it? The evidence base is contested and the implications of getting this wrong are very serious indeed, not least for standards and take-up.

“We hope and expect that by pausing the process and building more consensus, the DfE will reach a set of proposals everybody can get behind.”

DfE proposals include “streamlining” course content, so that students will only be tested on what they have been taught, and so that exams will not include any grammar or vocabulary that students have not covered during lessons.

The APPG’s statement, issued today is backed by 16 organisations representing teachers, school leaders, linguists and education experts, including the Association of School and College Leaders, the British Academy, the Chartered Institute of Linguists, and the NAHT, NEU and HMC unions.

There are also concerns that the DfE has not published the evidence base for the reforms, which “appear to reduce the subject content, making it more difficult for exam boards to devise fair examinations while risking widening the gap between GCSE and A level”.

MPs also state: “Stripping out communicative skills and culture is counterproductive when these are the skills the country needs in real-world settings, such as trade, exports, international relations, diplomacy, security and international development.

They also highlight “the risk of implementing untested reforms in a year when MFL is already under pressure from Covid-19 lockdowns preventing students from engaging with lessons, and post-Brexit arrangements affecting exchanges and the recruitment of language assistants and teachers.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said:  “The revised subject content for French, German and Spanish GCSEs will encourage more students to take up these important subjects, broadening their horizons and improving their employment opportunities.

“These changes will make modern foreign language GCSEs more well-rounded for both teachers and pupils, by prioritising the foundational building blocks of learning a language, particularly vocabulary and grammar.”

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Dave Speck

Dave Speck is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @Specktator100

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