Here is, in essence, what I have responded to the DfE KS4 accountability consultation.
We urgently need to improve the situation for languages in schools and it is vital that the government takes into account specific issues which affect language learning in the national curriculum, in order to avoid creating further ‘perverse incentives’ with a negative effect on language take up.
The introduction of a foreign language into the KS2 curriculum creates 2 interrelated issues which affect the way in which languages can be used within the accountability framework at KS4. These are a) whether pupils will be able to continue with the same language when they move from KS2 to KS3, and b) the need to encourage a wider range of languages given that around 95% of language teaching in primary schools is in either French or Spanish.
I argue that schools cannot be held accountable unless starting points as well as finishing points are measured and that we need a new graded assessment system for languages in order to provide this.
Impact on lesser taught languages
The accountability arrangements proposed may have the effect of narrowing the range of languages studied.This is because a value added measure based on performance at GCSE in relation to prior performance in English and Maths at KS2 will not take into account the fact that some pupils will be starting a new language in Year 7 and others at the beginning of their GCSE course, while some pupils will have had 9 years’ tuition in the same language. Lesser taught languages such as Arabic, Russian or Mandarin are often introduced only at KS4 but because they diverge more from English than Western European languages, they require more time to reach similar levels. A value-added measure based on English and Maths will not measure value added in a foreign language and there will inevitably be pressures on schools and students to avoid the risk of a poor grade by sticking to a language they have already learned rather than enriching or revitalising their language learning experience by starting a new one. German may also be affected since it is perceived as a ‘hard’ language at GCSE and there is very little German teaching in primary schools.
Shortcomings of GCSE languages as a tool for school accountability
I am concerned about the total reliance on GCSE results as a measure of performance. Teachers responding to the Language Trends survey are clear that the current assessment arrangements do not promote ‘deep understanding’ but rather reward superficial rote-learning. This means that the exam is not meaningful or credible to either learners or employers, but is seen merely as a box ticking exercise for school performance tables. Rather than preparing pupils for life in the global economy, this is creating a cycle of disenchantment with language learning.
Teachers also say that the GCSE exam advantages pupils who are generally high attaining, but is less accessible for lower ability pupils within the curriculum time available. Many schools have now made a language compulsory for their top sets, but lower attaining pupils are encouraged to take other subjects in which they will be more successful.
Teachers are also concerned about comparability between languages at GCSE, because more time is needed to acquire the same level in languages with non Roman scripts or those which have little vocabulary in common with English (particularly when these are only started in Year 10).
I do not believe therefore that the GCSE exam provides a suitable tool for measuring schools’ performance in providing high quality, effective language teaching which enables pupils to progress in language learning.
There is an urgent need for an easily comprehensible but credible system of assessment which shows what competences learners have acquired and what they can do in the foreign language. GCSE does not provide this.
A graded system of language tests, similar to that used for music, based on the Common European Framework of Reference or on the Languages Ladder, would provide a much better tool for measuring both pupil progression in language learning and for holding schools accountable. And it would be likely to encourage more pupils to study a language at KS4 and to enable a wider range of languages to be taught.
Rather than setting a bar at a particular level like GCSE, such a system would provide flexibility in measuring progress, whether pupils continue with the same language from KS2, or pick up a new one in Year 7 or Year 10. It would also provide accreditation for those pupils who give up a language at the end of KS3 (whether to start a new one or to focus on other subjects) or who for a variety of reasons do not reach the high standard now being proposed for the new GCSE. It would also potentially provide the means of measuring progress between KS2 and KS4, for students who take the same language, encouraging schools to build on what has been learnt rather than ‘starting from scratch’ as so often happens.
Impact on less able students
The current system disadvantages less able pupils by being a test of short term memory rather than measuring genuine learning. Graded qualifications, mapped against internationally-recognised standards, would provide a more meaningful, relevant and motivating way of reflecting pupil performance. They would allow pupils from across the educational spectrum to gain a language qualification.
Additional measures the government should publish
The EBacc has had some effect on uptake for languages amongst high attaining pupils and should be retained.
However the government should also publish measures of foreign language performance based on assessment against internationally-recognised standards. This would recognise the achievement of:
a) less able pupils who might otherwise drop languages
b) pupils taking up a new foreign language at the beginning of KS4
c) pupils giving up a language at the end of KS3
It could also provide the means for schools to measure the extent to which they have contributed to the development of pupils’ competences in languages they have contact with at home, since it has the potential to measure both ‘before’ and ‘after’.
A reformed and upgraded GCSE could be retained, within this system, as a premium qualification for higher attaining pupils or those who have been able to carry on with the same language for 9 years.
I do not believe this is a priority at this time, or that, based on the current structure of assessments, it would help the wider public to understand the extent to which schools are helping pupils to gain competence in a foreign language.
National sample tests
There is no need to develop national sample tests for languages, since the European Survey on Language Competences (developed by an English lead partner) already exists. The results of the first survey highlighted the failings of the GCSE exam as a reliable measure of language competence and the need to map assessment systems against more rigorous internationally accepted measures.
I strongly urge the government to participate in the next round of the European Survey, and meanwhile to reform assessment for languages as suggested in order to raise standards, improve pupil take up, and break the current cycle of disenchantment.