A short course to nowhere

Tes Editorial

Leading advisors warn of the pitfalls of opting for the new minimum requirement. Brendan O'Malley reports.

Modern languages departments may find they face a battle with curriculum planners when the proposals for GCSE short courses are approved at the end of the year.

The short course minimum requirement set down in the revised national curriculum will affect all pupils entering key stage 4 next September. But though the requirement for all pupils to study a language is widely welcomed, leading advisers are warning that schools should approach the short course option with caution.

They say there appear to be few if any advantages in terms of language learning and that the short option is least suitable for less able pupils, the very ones most likely to have been left out of key stage 4 before the requirement.

The approved methods of accreditation are via a freestanding GCSE (Short Course) or a combined GCSE. A proposed GNVQ route, though yet to be approved, would also be graded to GCSE standards. David Sword, chair of the National Association of Language Advisers, says: "If you are going to take the least able into account you need some accreditation that would suit them but at the moment that's not an option. We find it very difficult to see who this is going to suit other than curriculum planners."

Kathy Wicksteed, chair of the Association for Language Learning's policy committee and an inspectoradviser for Hampshire county council, believes that a short course is the opposite to what slow learners need. "You don't ever motivate by offering less, you motivate by putting your heart and soul into it and that means a course that goes somewhere and means something," she says.

Both advisers agree that the alternatives of a long thin short course spread out over two years or a concentrated short course in Year 10 present their own problems. The drip feed option would provide too little contact time for meaningful language learning, while the gap after a short fat course in Year 10 and the lack of a full GCSE would block progress to studies at 16-19. "We think it odd that pupils would do a course in Year 10 and give up in Year 11. They wouldn't then come back. So we are very unhappy," says NALA's David Sword. "If you can do a short course GCSE you may as well do the full one."

Some see the route only as a stepping stone for schools who didn't offer key stage 4 languages to all pupils to progress towards offering a full course to everyone. They might offer a short course to those pupils previously left out while staffing up to be able to provide a full course for them in future.

The idea of cutting back on any existing provision is strongly criticised. Kathy Wicksteed, for instance, says any move to downgrade second language courses to a short course would block progress to A-level before pupils are ready to make up their minds on their post-GCSE qualifications. "What will happen to Spanish and German A-level classes?" she asks. "To start suggesting that a second foreign language should in some way be a smaller language than the first foreign language has grave consequences."

The School Curriculum and Assessment Council points out that the original short course proposals, not just for languages but also for technology and some non-compulsory subjects, were designed to give schools the choice - which they clamoured for - of offering more breadth on the curriculum. But this inevitably would be at a cost of less depth in some subjects.

Come the New Year, curriculum planners will have to start making some hard decisions and language departments will need to make sure they weigh up all the arguments. The ALL has already been contacted by language teachers who are worried that their school will make the switch.

Mary Ryan, a general adviser in Avon, who was on the modern languages national curriculum working group, says: "There are schools that are considering the short course option as a way of giving more choice at key stage 4. I understand exactly the reasons why they are doing that but they may not understand the implications fully. I am very concerned that schools already offering 10 per cent (of curriculum time) may be looking to reduce it."

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