Friday, 24 September 2010

You and Yours: the follow up

The BBC 4 Radio programme You and Yours on 31st August was about 'Why Learn Languages?' following headlines of GCSE French dropping out of the top ten subjects.

The language teacher community was alerted via various email fora (Yahoo mflresources, TES forum, Twitter), and I joined with many others, listening and 'tweeting' ongoing comments.

In response to this, Joe Dale (language advisor, very experienced in operating in online environments and well known and respected in the mfl community) offered to organise a Flashmeeting where the programme could be discussed further, and a link to this recording of was sent to the BBC.

The BBC was interested in the comments made about severe grading and asked me to appear on a follow up programme. They played excerpts from the Flashmeeting relevant to this topic (including Valerie McIntyre, John Connor and myself.)

It was really good to have the opportunity to try and explain the situation to a wider audience and I hope that something might come of this. Here is a link to the programme which is on iPlayer
The timing is from 0658 - 1820

Here is a link to an embedded mp3 file.

ALL speak out about languages

Here are my quick answers to the four questions posed by ALL in their week for 'speaking out about languages'.

Within the context of your own work and locality:

1. What is the achievement you would most like the media / public / decision-makers to know about?

Language teachers are a particularly committed set of professionals. e.g. the ALL London branch has two events a year which draw over 100 people on a Saturday morning to talk about their work; The Yahoo mflresources group has nearly 3,000 ‘connected’ members, and a large core of regular contributors. There is a committed group of MFL ‘twitterers’. I do not know of another subject community with such a strong networking presence.

I am delighted that reading and listening will be tested in English .. this leads to a much more natural experience in the classroom and exam room where students can be given authentic tasks and authentic sources.

2. What is your response to media statements such as “language teaching puts most people off learning a language” or “Languages considered least important subjects for children to learn at school” ?

It is important to check the validity of statements made about languages and to avoid ‘knee-jerk reactions’ to them.
Just because people do not choose to take a language does not mean that they dislike them or do not value them. There are plenty of examples where pupils enjoy languages and the teaching, but when faced with a range of options, cannot ‘fit them in’ or see that other options suit their personal goals better. There are adults who value languages who see the point, but who just don’t allocate time to learn them. There are even more constraints of time and dilemmas of choice within a secondary curriculum.
We cannot be complacent .. as with any subject , we are always looking for ways to maintain and improve our teaching methods. However, there is no evidence that there is a particular problem with T&L in languages by comparison with other subjects. (cf Geography OFSTED)
We are aware that the nature of the exam can lead to repetitive tasks.
What does put languages in a different category for most learners, is the fact that it can seem ‘hard’ - just as in maths. Maths and languages are subjects where learners are continually faced with explicit examples of things they cannot do.

3 What are the issues that worry you most?

The apparent trend towards reducing time spent on ML at KS3 (presumably often dictated by a school’s desire to attain the highest scores for the purposes of the league tables .. e.g. by starting formal preparation for GCSE in Year 9, or allowing pupils to stop learning languages before the end of year 9.

(See appendix for reference to ALL London website which has links to relevant statistics.)
The false assumptions that are being made in response to a situation where numbers are continuing to fall in post 14 take-up. Too often the assumption is made that this is to do with valuing languages, or responding to the teaching and learning, whereas the most obvious reason is that severe grading makes it more difficult to attain a grade A*-C in languages. (A disincentive to all in the system: managers, teachers, pupils and parents)
The failure of DfE to respond to the QCA report which gave clear evidence of severe grading.
The slow response of OFQUAL to severe grading. An inter subject comparability seminar has been held and we await follow up.
The low percentage of A* grades awarded at A level in a subject area which clearly has a more able cohort.

I am very disappointed that the exam boards did not allow for differentiation in the support given for speaking and writing tests and a more flexible approach to assessing speaking. The current format encourages ‘rote learning’ so that students can show what they know understand and can do in the limited ‘test window’ available (one hour for each of two writing tasks, approx 10 minutes for each of two speaking tasks, both with very limited support during the test. This can lead to very dull preparation, and a very negative test experience for the least able.
The subject specific criteria do not preclude a more helpful format. This is something that could be changed.
The qualification should be a ‘General Certificate of Secondary Education’ which should be accessible to all, and NOT a qualification only for the ‘high fliers’ and the specialists. In its current format it is not, and this has led to people quite understandably opting for other qualifications whose format is more suited to the less able (e,g, NVQ). This should not be necessary. The GCSE should be appropriate for the vast majority.

There are differences in opinions from within the subject community
Very often, mixed messages can be sent out by well-meaning people.
It would be helpful to articulate the separate issues objectively, without emotion (e.g. to avoid the criticism of ‘well they would say that, wouldn’t they?)
It is very difficult to influence decision makers when they can easily find contrary views and information from other language professionals.
An example: Primary languages. The success of primary languages will depend on the opportunities and constraints of the local context. Dearing and King accepted that ‘the devil is in the detail’ … it is vital to acknowledge this and avoid sweeping generalisations about what ‘should’ be happening.

While this strategy will probably increase numbers of able (i.e. those likely to achieve A-C) students (and there has been a great need for this strategy .. it has been especially worrying to see the drop in absolute numbers attaining A*-C .. evidence that able students are dropping languages) .. it will not make any difference to encouraging less able up-take. This is why it is not enough.

4. How can we ensure that decision makers in education value language learning?

I believe that decision makers in secondary education do value language learning and that it is unhelpful to ‘blame’ them for not promoting languages. However, decision makers at school level (curriculum managers) will not decide to promote languages if this leads to a poorer judgment of their overall performance as published in league tables and this is totally understandable.
A significant ‘negative’ will be removed by ensuring that the award system fairly rewards language learning with comparable grades e.g. at GCSE and AS/A2.
It would be helpful for the subject community to understand their predicament (and certainly not to ‘blame’ them for the problem) and to provide managers with the information needed to ‘make the case’ for change. The Headteacher union ASCL is behind the proposal for change. (2 key members of the ASCL management team are linguists .. )
It would also be helpful to challenge those who extrapolate generalisations from their own personal experience.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Getting ready for the Curriculum Review

Perhaps it's a good idea to start rehearsing arguments and counter-arguments as we prepare for the curriculum review.

The experience of listening to the Radio 4 programme entitled 'Is it worth learning a language?' brought to light (for me) the problem of

(1) asking the right question [as Mike Elliot pointed out, the debate was sparked off by the falling numbers in GCSE languages .. perhaps a better title for the programme would have been 'Why are numbers falling?' .. the question tended to assume immediately that the fall was because of people questioning the validity of learning a language ..)


2) getting easily distracted from the key question / drawn into separate discussions

I must tidy my house and prepare lessons (!) ...but I'll use this blog again to plant an idea which might help others / might be something I can develop .. perhaps as a way of getting out of a vicious circle of debate. I prepared this list of arguments and counterarguments in the context of analysing exam results but the structure could perhaps be useful in this context as well:

Arguments and counterarguments

Key headings and arguments copied and pasted below ...

Time: It is argued that languages get less time than XXX (any of i) English, Maths / other subjects + issue of time at KS3 ii) what the QCA assumed iii)what they get in other countries)

Counter-arguments: subjects such as BS get no time at KS3; virtually all subjects get the same time at KS4, German / Spanish is more often than not a second language / starts later / gets less time and yet the gradings for those subjects are virtually identical to French. The disparity re grading goes back to before QCA / what evidence was used to match time to criteria. In other countries, time for non-English languages is often similar across the ability range to ours, and non-English teachers in other countries despair about the lack of interest in their subject.

Aptitude: It is argued that you need a particular aptitude to succeed at languages. This would make it similar to music, art and drama, but significantly, those subjects actually appear on the other side of the "difficulty" spectrum to languages. Also, studies such as CEM showed the lower correlation between subjects such as music & art and the "mainstream" (which endorses the "aptitude" argument) but MFL shows a good fit (same as History). This effectively undermines the aptitude argument as a reason for "severe grading" for MFL.

Motivation / being an "option" It is argued that if pupils are choosing a subject then they will do so because they wish to study that subject / will be better at it. This is where the situation with MFL in the last 4 years offers rich pickings for analysis, as the subject has moved from being "nearly compulsory" to "often optional". Often it is a local decision as to how optional MFL has become and the timescale involved. Appendix 1 offers a simple analysis to show that the exam boards have not acted consistently in what is a very difficult time to make judgements on standards, It is not surprising that complaints about fluctuations and inconsistencies in gradings have exploded as a result. The very fact that some exam boards are making some adjustments in some languages undermines the argument whichever way round it is being put!

Teaching and Learning (QCA example - Jim Knight's response). It is argued that the problem lies on the quality of teaching and learning in ML. Response:

There is a false logic in the QCA's position of implying that you should tackle teaching and learning INSTEAD of tackling severe grading (with its implicit assumption of criticising ML teachers relative to teachers of other subjects).The key point is that BOTH teaching and learning AND severe grading need to be tackled. ALL subjects should be focusing continuously on improving teaching and learning. Languages is uniquely disadvantaged because of severe grading at GCSE.

Urdu (QCA example) To bring in Urdu as an apparent comparator is surprising given the number of native speakers taking the exam and the minimal number of students who will have been taught Urdu from scratch in school.

You and Yours Radio 4 programme: Is it worthwhile learning another language?

I've just posted this comment to the Radio 4 You and Yours programme:

One important factor is that QCA confirmed officially in Feb 2008 that half of the students gaining a grade B in maths will get a grade C in French - half of those getting a grade C in maths will get a grade D in French. All the evidence shows that it's the setting of grade boundaries in French exams which goes back 30 years that is the issue - this is an in-built negative handicap - there should be a level playing field between Modern languages and subjects such as maths, science, history and geography. I have documented this here:

Monday, 30 August 2010

ML numbers at AL and GCSE, and “severe grading”

I've prepared a summary of the latest situation regarding the numbers taking ML at A-level and GCSE (+ spreadsheet with all the numbers and graphs, updated to include June 10 results), and also regarding “severe grading”.

I’ve updated the pages on the ALL London site so that these documents can easily be downloaded. I have created 5 separate pages with up-to-date figures:

- numbers at GCSE ML over time
- numbers at AL and AS ML over time
- severe grading at GCSE
- severe grading at AL and AS
- the issue with the new A* at AL for ML

There is also a timeline relating to the last few years, with presentations, documents etc, including the presentation I gave at the Ofqual Inter-subject comparability seminar in Oct. ‘08

The issue with the new A* in A-level French (and to lesser extent in German and Spanish) is a new one, and worth pursuing vigorously before it becomes embedded. It is also one which is unlikely to have been noticed at an individual school level, and only becomes clear looking at the national statistics.

There are also links to:

BBC News article today about Ofqual’s brief to look at comparability of qualifications (but not the points equivalence).

BBC News article “GCSE results: Trends explained” - “CILT, the national centre for language learning, agreed with this [John Dunford’s] analysis, saying the trend was "less to do with student disaffection" and more to do with "performance table pressures".

“Rule of thumb”

Judging from the ML forums, the numbers and results in ML continue to be source of much anxiety and concern, incl. how they are judged. A further thought to help fair judgement would be to publicise a “rule of thumb” arising from the QCA report (Feb ’08): if all pupils took Fr (or Gn) and Maths, to get the cohort % who “should” get A*-C:

Take the Maths A*-C cohort rate e.g. 70%
take the Maths C grade percentage e.g. 30% ( and so 40% had A*-B), and halve it e.g. 15%
Add this to Maths A*-B rate e.g. 40% + 15% = 55% to get the French cohort %

Clearly if ML is optional, then this needs to be adjusted, esp as those choosing ML are likely to be better at it, but at least it is a quick “rule of thumb”

I hope the above help to give a factual basis for the situation.

Friday, 8 January 2010

ALL LONDON JANUARY EVENT - Sat 23rd January 2010


It always goes really well, and we get very positive feedback .. and this is usually down to not only having really good speakers who people have asked to hear .. but also to there being such a nice crowd of positive, friendly people who get up early on a Saturday to meet with other like-minded people! It’s just really nice to meet people face-to-face. Here’s a link to the pictures from last year when, despite the snow, 80+ brave souls came along!

Below is a link to the latest invitation to the ALL London January Event which has some minor adjustments to the previous versions

… people have offered to do sessions twice so there will be more choice

.. ..I’ll do the GCSE spec ‘challenges of controlled assessment’ talk again (the one I did at CILT) at the end if anyone wants it.

… we have included an extra session for students on how to apply for your first job -

.. . we have a special reduced rate for students (£5)

Link to website:

Link to Facebook group (THANKS Cat for setting this up.. and those of you on Facebook, please please join .. !!):

We still have the same great speakers ..

* Sara Sullivan who is an incredibly successful HOD in Essex and loads of practical, ‘do-able’ ideas for increasing take-up and attainment …

* Vincent Everett whom we all know well from the mflresources forum .. again, an excellent HOD brimming over with ideas (I know we benefit loads from his written input to fora, but you’ll get even more by coming along to the talk!!!) ..

* Gill Beckett will do a repeat of the excellent talk I saw her to at the CILT 14-19 conference .. a really comprehensive overview of all the accredited courses available and a chance to follow this up with her ..

* and Johann LeCalvez who is a really smiley, friendly member of the BBC web team and will give an overview of all that the BBC has to offer

There will be stands from Sanako, The Ardmore Group and CILT, and goodies and information from the London Links into Languages Team.

Finally, I have put myself down to do a repeat of the GCE controlled assessment talk in case anyone wants that … but I won’t cry if no-one does! I’ll do it after the other sessions so it is just an extra if you want to stay.

I have visited the venue .. it’s really good .. (photos on the website) … we can fit loads of people in to the big talks, and having repeats available for 2 of the talks should make it possible for you to go to the ones you want to go to.

I know a lot of people tend to leave it to the last minute to book (I’m one of them!) .. but it would be really really helpful to have an idea of numbers as soon as possible as we have to book the catering.

Hope to see people soon. Of-course we’ll post stuff up on the website later.

Please put Saturday 19th June in your diary for the next one .. to be held at the French Institute.

Best wishes


Helen Myers
ALL London Chair