Issue 241: 2020 07 09: Learning Languages

09 July 2020

Learning Languages

Qualifications, confidence, conversation & quality.

By Lynda Goetz

As some will be aware, there is an ongoing Ofqual (Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) Consultation on proposed changes to the assessment of some GCSEs, AS and A level qualifications next summer.  This, like all consultations, is open to any member of the public, so should you have any views on the subject, you get a chance to make them heard.  As one Martin Turner points out in his useful guide on How to Respond to a Consultation, ‘you can dramatically increase your chance of successfully influencing the course of events if you understand what the consultation is for…’  This particular one is open for only two weeks (they usually last much longer) because of the ‘current situation’ and will close on 16th July.  Its existence has been reported on in the press, but, as is often the case, it is easy to get the impression from the media that these decisions and choices have already been made and will be implemented.

This consultation relates to a number of examinations in subjects such as the performing arts (dance, drama, music) art and film studies, design technology, science, languages, history and geography.  In each case modifications are proposed to take account of the fact that some schools have not provided teaching during lockdown, or that where they have done so, pupils have either not been in a position to take advantage of it (lack of home computers etc) or have simply not done so.  This will mean that in many cases schools and teaching staff will be in the position of having to ensure that pupils make up for lost time and lost education.  The proposals under consultation are in part therefore designed to free up teaching time.  There is also an awareness of the fact that, even if social distancing is no longer a requirement come exam time, it will have been a requirement for much of the academic year.  This latter aspect means that for pupils studying for example music, dance or drama, it may be difficult to perform with others; a normal requirement in normal times for such subjects.

Although Ofqual is clear that it is putting forward these proposals ‘in the context of our statutory objectives, which include to:

  • maintain standards of the qualifications we regulate; and
  • promote public confidence in those qualifications’;

it is equally evident that in some cases such changes will impact on the quality of the examinations taken next summer.  Surely, watching someone else (presumably a teacher) perform experiments is in no way akin to setting these up and doing them oneself?  Likewise, watching a skilled member of staff use the machinery for Design Technology does not equip one for handling such things oneself.  It might be alright once one has acquired the manual dexterity and some limited practical experience to learn, say, from a YouTube video; but until one has gained that basic ability, then a qualification with a limited non-examined assessment (NEA) element is surely an insufficient qualification?

In my own area of expertise, modern languages, it is proposed that at GCSE level the spoken element, which used to represent 25%, be eliminated and that the spoken language element become simply an endorsement assessed by the teacher alone (without any requirement to record the conversation and submit it for possible moderation).  It is also proposed to ‘Remove requirement to use words outside of vocabulary lists’.

Given that the languages in question are by definition ‘modern languages’ (usually at this level, French Spanish or German) spoken by our near neighbours in Europe, a proposal to eliminate the spoken element from examination seems almost perverse.  It is all very well clarifying that there is ‘no change to the grammatical knowledge required nor to the level of accuracy needed for the highest grades’, this does not detract from the fact that the proposals are relegating the teaching of spoken modern languages to the same status as Classical Latin or Greek – rendering them the same as ‘dead’ languages.

It cannot have escaped the notice of our politicians and educators that English (or American) is spoken around the world, not just by their peers in government or academia, but by the ordinary man or woman in the street.  When our citizens go abroad on holiday, how many can actually speak a few words to their hotelier, restaurateur, taxi driver or young man hiring deckchairs on the beach?  Wherever we go it seems to be assumed (usually correctly) that in the places we visit the natives will have learnt at least a minimal amount of English.  Even the lowliest in service industries around the world know that their livelihood depends on them speaking English/American.  (Americans are even less likely than the English to be able to speak a foreign language).

What does this say about us?  Firstly, it displays an unforgiveable arrogance; secondly, it shows ignorance about the advantages of understanding and being able to communicate in other languages.  By learning the language of another country, you can begin to acquire some understanding of their culture.  They may, for example, have words specific to aspects of their climate, geography or religion.  If they speak our language but we have no knowledge of theirs, they are the ones with an advantage; we are at a disadvantage.  How often have I wished I spoke several more languages when sitting near foreigners who, fairly secure in the knowledge that their language is impenetrable to those around them, can chat effectively in private, whilst our conversations in English are far more likely to be understood by all around us?  How must this feel around a negotiating table?

Speaking a foreign language is generally viewed as more difficult than understanding what others are saying.  This is not always the case, as any poorly-understood language always sounds as if it is being spoken far faster than it actually is.  Nevertheless, plucking up the courage to string a sentence together in a language learnt in a formulaic way in school is hard.  Many people feel embarrassed, exposed.  The way language is taught in this country (as exemplified by the emphasis on everything bar using it for conversation and communication) does little to help students’ confidence in a social situation.  Suggesting that in order to save teachers’ time we should reduce even further the emphasis on speaking a modern language when teaching it in schools, is almost an act of vandalism.  Rather than making a foreign language at GCSE optional (as it has been since the changes made by Tony Blair’s government in 2004), we should be making it compulsory.  Rather than eliminating the spoken element of exams we should be elevating it.  Already (as I know only too well from tutoring GCSE level students), the spoken element had in fact been reduced effectively to rote learning a set piece.

A report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) earlier in the year also concluded that learning a language should be compulsory up to 16.  Nick Hillman, Hepi’s director, said making foreign languages optional at GCSE was one of the worst education policy blunders in recent memory, and that reinstating them was a ‘no-brainer’.  “In terms of speaking foreign languages [the British] have never been good.  But now the level has gone from low to dire,” Hillman said.

The advice provided by Ofqual following the consultation will be given to the Secretary of State (Gavin Williamson) in August.  If this advice is acted upon it will ensure that the level of language teaching and qualifications in this country are allowed to fall even lower (and will this really only be temporary?).  Teachers may well find that ‘recording takes time to arrange and manage’, but it is time they should make available.  If teaching languages is what they do, ensuring that their pupils have some grasp of actually communicating in another language is, as the lawyers would say, ‘of the essence’.  I feel sure that others will have strong feelings on the watering down of our schoolchildren’s qualifications.  As many talk about ‘building back better’, perhaps we should take this opportunity to review and overhaul our teaching of languages to give students the ability to use them with confidence for communication and conversation?  Young people have borne much of the brunt of the measures taken during the coronavirus pandemic.  The quality of the qualifications they take should certainly not be compromised, even temporarily.



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