‘The British disease of not trusting “foreign” has infected students deciding against taking languages’

22nd May 2016 at 14:01
Language teaching
The collapse of MFL uptake will not be solved by any reconfiguring of the education system. It’s a way more ingrained problem than that, writes one leading headteacher

Sometimes I despair of my fellow-countrymen: really, I do. No, I’m not talking about the latest lows to which the Brexit debate has sunk, a choice (one might think) between Hitler-like domination if we remain and economic isolation plus untrammelled terrorism if we leave. No, abysmal as what passes for debate has become among politicians has begun, I’m not on about that.

Mind you, I can’t help fearing that our very ambivalence and indecision about Europe and our place in it has something to do with this week’s TES headline, the latest nail in the coffin of modern foreign languages in English schools.

Last Monday, TES revealed that OCR, England’s third-biggest school exam board, will not offer reformed French, German or Spanish GCSEs and A-levels, new specifications that schools are due to start teaching in September. Experts are warning, says TES, that the move could be “the thin end of the wedge and lead to other exam boards stopping qualifications that are loss-making or where a board has a small share of the market”.

Should we be concerned about a shift towards a position where only one exam board offers a particular subject? Some voices suggest we will only improve marking, and the reliability of results, if each individual subject is offered by only one board. Economies of scale: ability to recruit sufficient examiners; expertise all in one place; these are cited to justify a move to one-subject-one-board system.

To me it’s wrong. Having little faith in exam boards, I fear the loss of the one weapon we have against them (Ofqual having proved itself toothless), the competitive market that allows dissatisfied schools to move to another board. Franchising sounds to me like the worst of all monopolies.

The news that OCR is effectively pulling out of European modern foreign languages presages a greater doom. Numbers taking GCSE and A-level languages are plummeting: only the independent sector is effectively keeping them alive at A-level (that’s not a sectoral boast, just a fact). Yet even independent schools are concerned that relatively few A-level students choose French, German or Spanish, let alone other languages.

Their decisions are frequently pragmatic. For the ambitious A-level student aiming for a top university, a language A-level can appear a high-risk option. Boards award fewer top grades in languages: the range of live oral and aural tests within the qualifications provide a greater scope than other subjects for coming a cropper in the exam; and there have been numerous concerns about the quality of marking. Given that young people, particularly the most ambitious, are canny in planning their trajectory towards higher education, it can hardly be surprising that many eschew languages in favour of subjects whose outcomes are more predictable.

The problem goes deeper still. Some 47.6 per cent of GCSE pupils took a language in 2015: in 1998 entries peaked at 85.5 per cent. Introduction of the Ebac, with its compulsory language, has clearly failed to halt the decline, notwithstanding a claim from the DfE’s spokesman (my robotic friend Robert), that “the number of pupils entering for a modern language GCSE has risen by 20 per cent since 2010, reversing the severe decline between 2000 and 2010.”

If my maths is right, 20 per cent added to a small number remains a pretty small number, n’est-ce pas?

As usual we can blame government inaction for this latest grim news – and grim it is, whatever DFE claims.

At base I suspect the decline is linked to that strange relationship between the Brits and Europe. We like Europe to go on holiday in: but we don’t want to do politics with it. We love to go to Spain and order dos cervezas, por favor, but we’re damned if we can be bothered to learn the language properly.

Not all of us, I know: and please, language teachers, don’t write and protest, because I feel your pain and, believe me, do everything I can to support you in my school.

It’s the British disease, that dislike and distrust of “talking foreign” and belief that shouting loudly in English is sufficient for communication with neighbours we don’t much care for in any case.

So I begin to despair. It will take more than franchising out exams or fiddling statistics to solve this one.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chairman of the HMC. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

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