Language GCSEs fail to bear fruit for universities

15th January 2016 at 00:00
Exams risk being ‘irrelevant’, academics warn, as draft question on produce is branded ‘ridiculous’

New language GCSEs are at risk of being seen as too easy and too dull, universities have said, dubbing one draft exam question as “Year 7 material”.

The reformed exams, which will be taught to Year 10 students from September, are being brought in as part of a government bid to make GCSEs more “rigorous”.

However, the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML), which represents departments at more than 100 universities, has written to exams watchdog Ofqual to warn that draft GCSE papers from exam boards suggest that they “may not be fully embracing the spirit of radical change proposed”.

Jocelyn Wyburd, chair of UCML and director of the University of Cambridge Language Centre, told TES: “Pupils complain that languages are boring and irrelevant, and the new GCSE is supposed to make them interesting. But I’ve heard from schools that are very worried that they won’t.”

Sour grapes

She was particularly concerned about a French GCSE foundation paper. “The question was in English and it said, “You’re going to the shops, so write yourself a list of the items of fruit you’ve got to buy’,” she said. “Even for a foundation paper at GCSE, that’s ridiculous. It’s Year 7 material.

“Even low-ability students can engage with something more meaningful and interesting than a list of fruits…If we want pupils to switch off, that’s a great way of doing it.”

The question was on an AQA draft paper and has since been removed, but Ms Wyburd said that it was an illustration of how boards “may not be fully embracing the spirit of the reforms”. She hoped that if other boards were taking a similar approach, Ofqual would “come down like a ton of bricks” on them.

AQA’s French, German and Spanish GCSEs have now been accredited by Ofqual, but the other three boards – OCR, Edexcel and WJEC Eduqas – are still discussing the content of their new exams with the watchdog.

AQA is understood to have been planning to use the fruit question to distinguish between students at grade 1 and 2, the lowest grades in the new exams.

Ms Wyburd said that teachers had also told UCML that they were concerned about draft materials for oral exams because they appeared to allow pupils to memorise chunks of text to repeat in some sections, rather than having a spontaneous conversation.

Teachers warned that boards appeared to be “paying lip service” to a new requirement that pupils should be tested on authentic texts, such as blogs and news articles, in a foreign language. Instead of doing this, she said, some papers appeared to be using “made up bits of language” that had been written for the exam.

‘Reflecting the whole range’

WJEC Eduqas said that some points raised by Ms Wyburd related to early drafts of its sample assessment materials, but OCR and Edexcel said that they did not recognise the concerns.

One expert, who advises exam boards on language papers, told TES that universities’ worries suggested that their expectations were often different to “what teachers and exam boards know works at the chalk face”.

He thought that the fruit question was reasonable, adding: “I’ve known kids that can barely say a word in a language and others who are quite fluent, and a good assessment reflects that whole range. There’s no point in a candidate going into an exam and being unable to answer any of the questions.”

The expert, who asked not to be named, said that boards were using “adapted authenticity” rather than fully authentic materials because “there isn’t a lot of authentic material that’s accessible to the average 15- or 16 year-old”.

A spokeswoman for Ofqual said that it had received and acknowledged the letter from UCML and would arrange to meet its members. “We welcome the opportunity to discuss the points made further,” she said.

Amanda Roberts, subject officer for GCSE French and German at WJEC Eduqas, said that Ms Wyburd’s concerns “refer to an earlier version of our draft sample assessment materials”. The board’s new oral exam had been “designed to ensure students cannot memorise large pieces of dialogue”, she added, and the majority of source text in written exams was from authentic sources.

An AQA spokesman said new language GCSEs had been through a “very thorough process” and were “rigorous and engaging”. An OCR languages specialist said that the board’s papers were “engaging and motivating” while an Edexcel spokeswoman said that its assessments were comparable to those of high-performing countries.


‘Alarming’ fall in uptake

Language learning has to be enjoyable and challenging, Jocelyn Wyburd says, because of “alarming” drops in take-up at A-level and university.

UCML’s letter to Ofqual warns that languages are “in the midst of a crisis that threatens the subject’s very existence in schools”.

“There are students who should be getting an A or A* in languages who aren’t,” Ms Wyburd tells TES. “School teachers are telling us they’re not recommending students take languages at A-level – they’re recommending English and history, where they will get A grades.”

The letter warns that A-level reforms mean many pupils are likely to choose just three full A-level subjects, rather than four AS-levels. This could have a “devastating effect on languages” as pupils avoid language subjects because grades are “notoriously unpredictable”.

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