Headteachers and experts are warning that a major exam board’s decision to withdraw from modern foreign languages heralds a shift towards a system of monopolies, with little or no competition between awarding bodies.
As TES revealed on Monday, the OCR board will not offer reformed French, German or Spanish GCSEs and A levels that are due to be taught from September.
It is the first time that a major exam board has pulled out of qualifications in a core subject. Now experts are warning 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.
One academic is calling for Ofqual or the Joint Council for Qualifications to intervene to ensure all subjects are covered.
The Association of School and College Leaders has also expressed concerns. “If boards start pulling out and we end up with a monopoly for some subjects, that’s not a position that we’d like to see. It leaves no choice for teachers [and] no variation in assessment methodology,” said Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary.
OCR, England’s third biggest school exam board, linked the decision on languages to a lack of time to get the qualifications approved by Ofqual.
The ongoing delays in accreditation for reformed A levels and GCSEs, due to be taught from September, have been a source of growing frustration for teachers who need time to prepare (see box and timeline, opposite).
But OCR’s withdrawal comes amid growing pressure for all awarding bodies (see box, right). And the board’s statement gives no suggestion that it will re-enter the modern foreign languages market. There are fears that the franchising system, with one board per subject – which the previous education secretary proposed, then abandoned – could happen by default. Michael Gove dropped the idea in 2013 amid concerns that it would mean a loss of subject expertise and threaten exam board viability.
Now senior sources in the exams industry have told TES that they would not be surprised if other boards followed OCR and abandoned certain subjects.
Mr Trobe said: “My worry is, are we going to see franchising by the back door? The big concern is that this is the thin end of the wedge. Does this mean we will see the same thing happening in other subjects, where awarding bodies have low entry [numbers]?”
The Department for Education is still considering “long-term reforms” to the exams system and a well-informed source said this week that at least one of the major boards was basing its future plans on an assumption that a franchising model could be introduced.
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Education and Employment Research, said OCR’s announcement was a “sign of the times”.
“If there are not enough candidates to go around in any particular subject, then exam boards are increasingly likely to take hard commercial decisions rather than carrying on with loss-making papers,” he said. “It’s a very tough marketplace.” Jo-Anne Baird, professor of educational assessment at the University of Oxford, said that the decision highlighted the need for greater oversight of the exams system. “Somebody has to play a role in brokering how subjects are going to be offered across exam boards.”
The WJEC Eduqas board said that it expected to be the sole provider, or one of just two providers, of some GCSE and A-level qualifications in the so-called “third tranche” of reformed qualifications, which will be taught from September 2017. These included electronics and geology, a spokesman said.
He added that the board was “fully committed to providing a comprehensive suite of qualifications in England”.
Andrew Hall, chief executive of AQA, which is England’s largest schools exam board, said: “We have no plans to withdraw from any part of the core curriculum, and believe offering a broad range of subjects is the right thing to do.”
A spokesman for Pearson, which runs the Edexcel exam board, said: “Pearson has no plans to stop offering any current GCSEs or A levels and would never take such a decision on the basis of entry size alone.”
Cambridge Assessment, owner of OCR, said that the group would “continue to offer the widespread portfolio of qualifications” through its three boards.
The DfE said OCR’s decision was “disappointing” but schools could choose from many other GCSEs and A levels in the subjects. Ofqual did not wish to comment.
A ‘stark reminder’ of the decline of languages
OCR’s decision to stop offering modern foreign language GCSEs and A levels is a “stark reminder” of the subjects’ decline, experts have said.
Just 47.6 per cent of GCSE pupils took a language in 2015, down from 49.1 per cent the previous year and from a high point of 85.5 per cent in 1998.
The proportion declined every year from 2000 to 2011. There were slight increases in 2012, 2013 and 2014 but to nowhere near the pre-2005 levels.
“People have been saying the uptake of languages is going down, and people have been setting out the reasons, but this is a stark reminder,” said Professor Alan Smithers, director of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Education and Employment Research.
“It’s a signal of just how far the uptake has declined so it’s no longer commercially viable for one of the main providers.”
The Language Trends report, published by the British Council and the Education Development Trust last month, warns that the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) measure, under which languages are compulsory, is failing to halt the long-term decline in GCSE entries.
It adds that A-level modern language courses are becoming financially “unviable”.
But Teresa Tinsley, co-author of the report, was still “surprised” by OCR’s decision. “With the government’s ambition that 90 per cent of pupils will take the EBacc it should be an expanding market,” she told TES.
A DfE spokesman said: “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.
“Schools will be able to choose from the specifications offered by the other exam boards.”
Pressure on exam boards
Exam boards are suffering from falling income and rising development costs as a result of:
The end of modular exams.
The decoupling of AS and A levels.
A dramatic reduction in resits.
The simultaneous introduction of reformed GCSEs and A levels.
‘Schools are in meltdown’
Heads of department are panicking after realising at the last minute that they need twice the anticipated curriculum time to teach reformed GCSEs, a union leader has claimed.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, told TES that schools were in “meltdown” because of delays in accrediting new qualifications to be taught from September.
“Subject leaders are absolutely panicking because they are looking at the content and saying, ‘We need double the amount of time to teach it, and the timetable has already been set and there’s a massive teacher shortage’,” she said.
Dr Bousted said that the problem had come about because teachers had in many cases only recently been able to see exam boards’ approved specifications for the new qualifications.
Exams watchdog Ofqual has acknowledged that approval process has been slower than it had hoped.
“I worry that children are being set up to fail,” Dr Bousted added. “Secondary schools are in meltdown about the new syllabuses.”
Ofqual said that its accreditation process was designed to ensure “qualifications of the highest standard” and added that teachers had been able to “engage” with subject content since it was published by the government in 2014 and 2015.