Three ways schools need to change their approach to boost MFL

MFL entries at A level are still falling, but there is hope on the horizon if schools seize the initiative, says this assistant headteacher

Dan MacPherson

The content of GCSE modern foreign languages is being reviewed with the aim of increasing entries

It seems to have become a scheduled event in the modern languages’ calendar to lament the ever-depressing fate of uptake of the subject at A level. Reformed specifications have made the gap between GCSE and A level even wider, fuelling the notion that A-level languages are for native speakers only. 

Yet more depressing: A-level MFL provision has almost disappeared in the North East, accounting for only 3% of all entries. University language departments are on the brink of closure and revised visa requirements for EU nationals could result in further exacerbation of an already difficult recruitment market. The death knell of routine A-level MFL provision in all schools is deafening. 

And yet – whisper it softly – the stars of a more illustrious future for modern languages may be coming into alignment. The reformed specifications are a vast improvement on their predecessors, with film, literature, history and politics at their core, making for exciting and engaging courses. 

Moreover, Ofqual’s decision to review the grade boundaries in MFL from this year to take account of native speakers will inevitably mean higher grades for able, non-native students

Finally, while the jury is out on the merits of the Ebacc, this measure, coupled with the decision by universities such as UCL to require all undergraduates to have a GCSE in a modern language, will mean a larger pool from which to select linguists at A level. 

Combined, these three system changes could be game changers. 

So what can we do in schools? 

1. Make more time

At senior-leadership level, the curriculum and timetable need to be arranged so that time is not wasted at Key Stage 3. School leaders need to appreciate the cognitive demand of learning a language and allocate time accordingly. One or two lessons a week won’t suffice. Progress will stall as students fail to retain knowledge from one week to the next and motivation will plummet. 

One language studied in depth is always preferable to two covered briefly. Where possible, this should be the same language studied at primary school. Chopping and changing at an elementary stage only wastes times. At North Bridge House Canonbury, Year 7 students in 2017 will have four academic hours of either French or Spanish each week. This will continue throughout KS3.

2. Be ambitious

Heads of department need to set more ambitious targets for their teams. As we are unleashed from the shackles of national curriculum levels, uninspiring content and the study of "what I did at the weekend" repeated, in various guises, ad infinitum, KS3 is the time to switch students on to what is to come at A level. Describing the role of the protagonist in contemporary German cinema or reading and writing spine-tingling horror stories in Spanish already seems much more appealing. 

Thanks to generous curriculum time, at NBH Canonbury all students will reach GCSE level by the end of Year 9, enabling the study of literature, film, art and popular culture at increasingly sophisticated levels. The curriculum must be much more than an exam specification. To bridge the gap between GCSE and A level we need to enrich the menu at KS3 and KS4 and demand more of our students accordingly. 

3. Embrace the changes

As teachers, we need to be buoyed by these changes, rather than intimidated by them and rise to the challenge. We must continue to engage with networks such as the Association for Language Learning, the #mfltwitterati on Twitter, the rapidly growing Global Innovative Language Teachers group on Facebook and collaborate within and between schools. 

New opportunities are also on the horizon. The Chartered College for Teaching’s Languages network aims to bring together research and practice by collaborating with teachers and academics and encouraging research-informed decision-making. 

The scale of the challenge to shift the course of MFL provision is substantial, so it is vital that we review our teaching with the best of what has been discovered in the forefront of our mind. The first event, reviewing the spectrum of effective MFL pedagogy, is scheduled for December 2017 and will ask participants to identify their routine teaching "mode", review it and make refinements to improve its effectiveness. 

Time for change

So, despite the seemingly incessant mood music changing "despacito", I’m starting the new academic year quietly optimistic. I know it’s not popular to say it in a climate of pay restraint, budget cuts, stunted uptake and increased pressure to deliver results, but I’m beginning to think that it’s never been a better time to be a languages teacher in the UK. 

The government is behind us, universities want to help us, our courses are more engaging and pupil uptake at KS4 is on the rise. We have research and professional development opportunities at our fingertips and a vibrant online community from which to draw support. 

The onus is now on us to ensure that these opportunities aren’t wasted and that they convert to more positive headlines for A level in years to come. 

Dan MacPherson is assistant headteacher at North Bridge House Senior School & Sixth Form Canonbury, part of the Cognita group of schools

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Dan MacPherson

Dan MacPherson is Assistant Headteacher at North Bridge House Senior School in London

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