Down to business
Where have all the key stage 4 languages classes gone and how can we get them back? Modern languages teachers are becoming ever more creative at adapting their subject to students' needs, and new vocational courses at KS4 may be one way to help them. Three years ago, before the present disapplication even appeared, specialist languages college Frederick Gough School in Scunthorpe was looking for a way for students to study two languages at KS4 when taking two GCSEs was not the best option for many of them.
The languages department came up with the idea of students following a vocational-style certificate in business language competence in Spanish from OCR, while continuing to study their first language to GCSE.
This is one of five modules in their PSE studies, and students learn basic Spanish from scratch for one lesson a week over seven weeks in Year 10 and another seven weeks in Year 11. Different classes take the series of lessons in rotation over the year, with the same teacher, and exams are taken shortly after each series of lessons.
Sarah Wullink, director of language college, says: "Students find the course relevant and practical. They can see for themselves real situations, during family holidays for instance, in which their learning could be useful. In Year 10, students learn how to deal with visitors to a company and what to do when arriving at a hotel. It makes a change from describing one's mother's hair and eye colour."
The form of assessment is also different: students take a mainly oral exam with two small written components. In today's KS4 climate, students have substantial amounts of coursework to complete. This approach is wholly communicative, focusing on speaking and listening, which students find innovative and highly motivating. The lessons are highly focused with no time wasted. Students in a bottom set (of nine) were interested and said they enjoyed this new challenge. One girl said: "But Spanish is easy!" when she realised that much of the French vocabulary she knew helped her with Spanish.
The course works well across the range of ability: able students enjoy the challenge of a different style of course with a short-term objective; less able students find the short modules manageable.
Sarah Wullink also believes the business Spanish course has contributed to improved results at GCSE. The students, all of whom take the entry-level certificate, have achieved a pass rate of 92 per cent (no mean feat: GCSEs A*-C are 40 per cent, and 12 per cent of the children are eligible for free school meals). Achievements in business Spanish are recognised at a special awards ceremony sponsored by a local supermarket. Students know this provides them with a useful qualification to offer employers. But, as well as this, "it instils a sense that they can achieve," say staff.
Frederick Gough School now exports this course to another local school, St Bede's Catholic College, via video conferencing. Staff there are equally positive, and for the price of some kit (about pound;3,000) the school can now offer a new subject at KS4. Many other schools are now showing interest.
Last year, Frederick Gough won the European Award for Languages, sponsored by the European Union and organised by CILT, the National Centre for Languages. The judges were impressed by the way the project set "an important example for post-14 provision through its innovative use of a course traditionally designed for post-16 learners".
Nick Brown, who co-ordinates the course, is evangelistic about its benefits. He finds the course easy to teach because students are so motivated. When planning course materials, he has catered for a variety of learning styles, for example, by breaking down phrases into their phonetic pronunciation and using visuals. Staff also teach language learning skills.
"The students retain the language remarkably easily. They really do remember it the following year," he says. They can also take the language further and continue to study it at FE college.
The scheme does have some disadvantages. The cost of entering pupils for the exams in Years 10 and 11 is roughly twice the cost for a GCSE. Nick Brown acknowledges the importance of selling this course to the headteacher and governors, and says that, once they realised the benefits, they believed it was worth the extra cost. He also says the administrative burden of the exams is heavy, and for this he receives a management point.
However, he points out that because the course is externally tested and examined, there is no burden of marking and assessment for the teacher.
Given the changing face of post-14, and to counter the ennui that many students face with GCSE, this kind of course is certainly worth a closer look.
* OCR certificate in business language competence: www.ocr.org.uk More on post-14 languages qualifications see the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority: www.qca.org.uk and CILT, the National Centre for Languages: www.cilt.org.uk Wendy Adeniji is a PGCE tutor at the University of Leeds school of education
Wendy Adeniji is a PGCE tutor at the University of Leeds school of education