If shy kids find MFL torture, something is wrong

I came across a tweet recently which saddened me. “For shy kids, MFL can feel like torture”. This was then used as an argument for ditching the opportunity to learn a second foreign language in school and for making/keeping MFL optional at KS4.

As someone who was and is fairly shy, who nevertheless went on to specialise in languages, I could not disagree more. My take on this is that what shy people find torture is being laughed at, or being made to feel a fool. Unfortunately, this can happen in MFL classes, or indeed in classes of any subject.

I learnt a lot from watching teachers deliver MFL lessons abroad in three different countries. Despite the differences in methodology, I noticed one thing in every lesson and it was this. An absence of sniggering. It was quite remarkable. Here is one example:

The class had to prepare 2 minute presentations on New York. Certain pupils were selected and had to come to the front. The first pupil selected was very confident and well prepared and delivered his speech with scarcely an error. The class listened. Not a grin, a wink, or a snigger in sight. I was impressed. The pupil received a good mark.

The second speaker had not prepared well, was nervous and stumbled. But again, my attention was on the rest of the class. At one point he was erring and umming and I noticed a couple start sniggering to each other. The teacher also noticed and wordlessly raised a finger at the sniggerers, without stopping the boy who was speaking. The sniggers stopped immediately. The boy continued, with factual and grammatical errors, but he was listened to respectfully, with the class facing the front. His speech barely lasted a minute and he was given a low mark

The third speaker was obviously also nervous, yet well prepared. However she spoke so quietly she could barely be heard. No sniggering this time in the audience, but a lot of whispering broke out. This time the teacher stopped the speech and admonished the numerous whisperers who stopped immediately. But equally, she then turned to the presenter and reminded her of the need for voice projection and speaking up, otherwise it would be boring for the audience, who would then start whispering to each other. Although nervous, she finished with much better voice projection. Again, following the admonition, there was no more whispering or sniggering among the rest of the class.

So I have to ask myself now two questions:

1) Was it “torture” for the teacher to make pupils come and speak at the front of the class, some of whom were obviously shy and nervous?

2) Did it “feel like torture” for those pupils who were speaking?

I suppose the simple answer is “I don’t know.” I did not know what was going on in the heads of the pupils at that point. It was a test and they were being given marks for it, so they probably were not enjoying it. All I could do was think about how respectfully the speakers were listened to and how any attempt at winking, whispering or sniggering was stopped.

Now, I know many people reading this will be thinking, ” well that’s just good class management and I would not allow laughing at mistakes in my class,”  but please bear with me. Over 30 years I have watched numerous lessons (not just MFL), where a teacher will be asking questions to the whole class. Some pupils will volunteer answers, at which point the rest of the class turn to look at that pupil who is answering. As a shy person, I remember finding that very off-putting. yet this is tolerated, even by those who would admonish sniggering. When watching lessons abroad, I did not see pupils turning round nearly so often. Anecdotal but it got me thinking.

I like my classes to sit in rows facing the front. This certainly does not mean, as some “progressives” might have you think, that I would obviously never do pair work, group work or games and am some kind of Victorian reactionary. Nevertheless, the bulk of my teaching is whole class teaching, involving me

a) asking questions to the whole class and looking for hands up (with occasional prompting for those who rarely volunteer)

b) going round the class with pupils answering in turn ( my very old fashioned version of no hands up questioning – I’m not really into lolly sticks)

To give the shy pupils confidence, I enforce a “no turning round to look at someone answering” rule. It takes a class a while to get used to it and I periodically have to point or click fingers at someone attempting to turn and look at the person answering. My view is that speaking a foreign language is difficult and I want my pupils do be able to do it without fear, not just of being laughed at, but also of having people turn and look at them while they are answering. A teacher cannot be sure that, among those turning round, there will not be someone with a leering expression or a snigger.  In imho that is what shy people do not like. On the other hand, shy people still have to do presentations in front of the class, with everyone looking at them. Nevertheless, in those situations, the teacher can monitor easily any attempts at sniggering or whispering. The shy person, however, also has a responsibility to deploy voice projection, which they have usually done in drama.

Do my shy pupils like speaking up in class or doing presentations? No they don’t from what they tell me. But they also tell me they appreciate not having to worry about others in the class sniggering. They also tell me they appreciate my not allowing others to turn round and look at them when they are trying to formulate sentences in a foreign language. And in the past some very shy pupils have gone on to do the language at A level. We don’t all like games. We don’t all like speaking. But shy people can and do succeed in MFL.

 

 

 

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Stop MFL decline? Not just one thing to do, but many

As an MFL teacher and head of department, I am naturally interested when something like the following appears. In response, we usually get a flurry of tweets proposing solutions to the problem of declining language take up. I would summarise the solutions as follows

a) We need fairer GCSE grading

b) We need examinations which are better designed

The above are the focus of the letter to the Guardian by a group of linguists, but then people tweet other solutions, namely:

c) The whole MFL curriculum is too banal and needs revamping

d) We must teach languages more at primary, the earlier the better

e) We need to teach subjects in other languages (CLIL)

f)  UK language teaching methodology is wrong

g) The subject needs to promote itself more

h) MFL needs far more curriculum time

I think the issue is that perhaps all of us who believe in the importance of MFL tend to focus on just one of these solutions, as the one and only thing that will save the subject. In the past I have been as guilty of this as anyone(point h is my thing). I would like to take each of the above points in turn and explain why I have come to the view that focussing on just one of these, to the detriment of others, is not going to work and why I now, after 30 years of teaching, believe that it is a matter of taking all of the above into account.

Points a and b

At the grammar school I attended in the 1970s, it was accepted that languages were hard. We were a grammar school and did French, German and Latin, whereas the secondary modern down the road barely dabbled in French. Languages had “snob” value. We have quite rightly moved away from a situation where it is “I am intelligent because I study X and you are thick because you study Y. “But in truth, do all subjects present the same level of cognitive challenge? Is there any research on this? And if not, can this be compensated for in the format of examinations and the grading? I have often heard people say that any difference in cognitive demands between the subjects can be accounted for in the examination. But is that really the case? Is MFL more difficult than others? And are some languages more difficult than others? A French colleague once told me that in France it was accepted, for example, that German was more difficult than Spanish. I have no idea whether that is in fact the case, both in terms of whether this is the general view among French academia ,or whether German is more difficult. From my own experience teaching relatively able pupils in recent years, I find they can often understand quite complex grammar when it is presented to them, but they tell me the thing about MFL is how much they have to REMEMBER AND RETAIN, compared to other subjects.

Point c

This is certainly the view of a fellow linguist @MFLTransform and he/she has a point. The new GCSE is certainly better than the last version, but there is certainly not enough cultural background. And as someone who spent summer holidays playing outside the house, running errands, reading, with only the occasional stay with grandparents or trip to the beach to break up the boredom, I am still concerned that the MFL exam seems to assume that all our pupils have action packed middle class lifestyles. Endless talking about yourself, family, hobbies, where you live etc is very boring. Yet I am old enough to remember that the focus on “self” in language teaching was brought in, because it was felt that the O level was demotivating as a result of too much grammar and translation. I remember the late Ted Wragg (a linguist) enthusing in the TES about how the new GCSE in MFL was far more motivating for children, as children like to talk about themselves. Well yes, up to a point. But for teenagers who are learning about the adult world in all other subjects? Hmm. And that leads us on to the next point..

Point d and e

Other European countries start languages earlier than we do. Young children are more receptive to foreign tongues and less likely to be prejudiced. Moreover, all the topics in GCSE MFL, which are rather banal for teenagers, are not so for younger children, who do, as Ted Wragg said, like talking about themselves. Without the worry of GCSEs, primary schools are often more receptive top the idea of teaching other subjects in a foreign language. The CLIL idea (teaching other subjects in a foreign language) helps children see that languages are not something cut off from everything else and the recent SpAG test at least enables pupils to realise that English is not something apart from other languages and totally unrelated to those peculiar foreign tongues. There is a risk of cognitive overload, but some schools both here and abroad are doing CLIL successfully. However, just saying  “teach it in primary” as New Labour did back in 2004, is not enough. Half an hour a week with a non specialist and they won’t get much beyond names, ages, colours, animals, counting to 10 and singing a few songs. Also, should there be uniformity about which language is taught? And if not, will it really help secondary schools, who already find that they have to teach from scratch anyway, as  the feeder primaries have all done different languages and are at different stages? At which point someone usually talks about coordination between primary and secondary. This may work in small towns and rural areas, but not in large urban areas where schools have a range of feeder primaries.

Point f

Back in the 1980s, on my PGCE course we were all trained that explicit teaching of grammar was wrong and that all lessons should be taught entirely in the foreign language. @brianlightman mentions the same thing happening to him on his PGCE. Phonics and pronunciation practice were a big no-no.The Bauckham review into MFL teaching highlighted some of the issues which have arisen from misguided pedagogy. @JohnBaldLangLit has particularly strong views on the shortcomings of CILT, the now abolished national centre for promoting languages, when it came to pedagogy. My own view as a practising teacher in the field was  that I found CILT useful for resources and the people there were all committed linguists. However, when monitoring a CILT trainee, it did seem to me they got far too hung up on motivation and teachers issuing rewards for children for asking to remove their jacket in the target language. This leads me on to the next point.

Point g

Many feel that the main issue in MFL is that pupils are not enthused enough.  So over the years many school language departments have latched on to all kinds of ideas. Huge displays, language themed events, trips, exchanges, assemblies, outside speakers, cross curricular projects etc. Is there a head of MFL anywhere that hasn’t arranged some or all of these? As a German teacher, I am a firm believer in the value of trips, as most have never been to Germany before and are often surprised at how much they like it when they get there. And there is no doubt that a new event can often give an uplift to numbers opting for the subject. However, for the uplift to be sustained, other factors come into play and this is not always appreciated by the “everything is motivation” lobby.  MFL has been in decline nationally for years and it is simplistic to say that it is all about pupil motivation and MFL teachers not promoting it enough. It may suit some headteachers to say this, however, as it avoids discussion of the next point.

Point h

The lack of curriculum time accorded to the subject is, I would still contend, the main reason why it does poorly relative to other subjects and indeed the performance of students leaning languages in other countries. But I am less dismissive of the other points than I used to be. On its own, sufficient curriculum time is not enough. The English education system is not suited to MFL, in that it gives subjects other than maths and English very little time in the early stages and then bags of it at A level. I would contend that teaching a language on one period a week and teaching another subject such as RE, history, geography on one period a week is not directly comparable, because the memory and retention issues in language learning, which I mentioned earlier, are more acute in languages than in other subjects. So then what happens is that pupils become disaffected and behavioural issues arise. SLT then put it down to incompetent MFL teaching (other subjects on one period a week are not having these problems!) and basically give up on the subject or start advertising for lead practitioners/advanced skills teachers/etc.

However, I now realise that it is also true that just giving MFL more time in its early stages is not the single answer. All of us MFL teachers have to ask ourselves whether, in the past, we have always made effective use of the time we have been given. I certainly like to think I have, but likewise we MFL subject specialists should not discount the views of many headteachers, referred to in the Bauckham review, who would say that they have given time to the subject but results have continued to disappoint.

So although I feel that curriculum time is the main issue, I do now acknowledge that by itself it is not enough. All the points I have mentioned need to be taken together. May be some can think of others. Somehow, we have to persuade the powers that be to take all of the issues together.

 

 

 

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Secondary curriculum design – let’s standardise the basics first

Ofsted’s focus on the curriculum seems to have thrown up two contrasting views, roughly equating to a trad/prog split, on what the ideal secondary curriculum should look like. I have enjoyed reading both viewpoints and deciding where I stand on this. However, I feel that no one has yet addressed the basics.

At one end, we have ideas described by proponents as forming the basis for “a curriculum fit for the 21st century,” but read rather like “a throwback to the 1970s” to those longer in the tooth such as myself.  A grudging nod may occasionally be given to subject disciplines, but the general tenor is overriding enthusiasm for project based learning, topics, cross-curricular work and discrete lessons in various “skills”, which we are informed we are all going to need in the brave new world of the future (as if they were never needed before). Enthusiasts for this approach appear to be Mary Bousted of the NEU, John Dunford of ASCL and various academics such as Guy Claxton. I have written a post about this earlier. In order to attract support, enthusiasts of this approach to the curriculum paint the alternative as an examination treadmill, with students poring over mark schemes, teachers obsessing about target grades and constant interventions with students falling behind. Given that this has happened in many schools recently, it is highly likely that a large teachers will be seduced by a curriculum which appears to reject all of this. Being broadly traditional, I believe those of us who are sceptical about such an approach need to highlight and highlight again the many occasions where it failed in the 1970s and indeed more recently in the borough of Knowsley.

So you would expect me to be an enthusiast for the alternative approaches which place knowledge at the heart of the curriculum, make use of cognitive science and seek to develop long term memory. I certainly do find these ideas more attractive than the alternative, but as a subject leader I am focussed on three mundane, but essential issues for anyone who believes in a subject based curriculum. They are:

a) How much curriculum time do I get overall?

b) How long are lessons?

c) How are the lessons distributed in the different year groups?

Boring, boring, boring I hear you say. But the answers I receive to these questions will have a dramatic effect on what I teach, when I teach it and how I teach it. I often sigh when I read articles and books about methodology in my subject, foreign language teaching. They appear to assume the same rules apply whether you are teaching the subject for over 5 hours a week (as I did when teaching abroad) or whether you are teaching the subject in an after school club for half an hour every week. I would contend this is simply untrue. If I am compelled to teach my subject on one hour a week for example, I have to accept that students will forget target language easily. I then have to accept that students become frustrated because they forget it all. I then have to accept that this frustration will lead to behavioural problems. So do I then spend a lot of lesson time going over the same stuff again and again (leading to boredom at lack of progress), or do I decide to move on to new material (leading to many students forgetting)?

Many countries have standardised lengths of lessons. In Britain, lesson times vary between 35 minutes to 3 hours.

Many countries decree the amount of curriculum time a subject should get, both overall and within a year group. In Britain, the variation in curriculum time in my subject is astounding and I have blogged about this here.

In my conversations with various members of SLT throughout the years, many mention the challenges of putting a timetable together which reconciles the different wishes of each subject. Fair enough. But I would contend this conversation needs to happen at a national level and that guidance needs to be given. Performance management means that comparisons between subjects in terms of “value added” are inevitable. There has to be a move towards a level playing field if fairness is to be ensured. But I accept that this could restrict the freedom of senior leaders to adapt the curriculum as they see fit for their schools.

I am not sure what the answer is. Yet I do believe that the three questions I posed  should be being debated at national level. I repeat them:

  1. How much curriculum time should a subject have overall?
  2. How long should lessons be?
  3. How should the lessons be distributed among different year groups?

It may well be decided there should be no national guidance and schools should be free to do what they like. Fair enough, if these questions have been properly debated at national level. My note of caution would be that, if other countries  have decided to give more explicit advice (in some cases statutory) on these matters at a national level, then should we assume that giving headteachers and governors absolute power over these questions is always a good thing?

 

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Rebutting the “Stuff the facts – let’s just develop confident rhetoric” argument

Every now and then I see an article which makes me think about what the author is really saying and trying to see if I can agree with it. The article which got me thinking inferred that facts are irrelevant to a debate, as confidence was what mattered.

https://schoolsweek.co.uk/you-dont-need-facts-to-win-a-debate-you-need-confidence/

To quote from the article

“I was horrified (my italics) by a policy developer who tried to defend a knowledge-rich curriculum because “you need facts to win a debate”. He’s wrong – you need confidence. I’ve seen people win debates purely on bravado without an ounce of knowledge”

What horrifies me is that, in many cases, the author of the article is correct. There have been and there still are people who can win debates through sheer bravado. If you look and sound confident, you can go a long way. In my experience, people with a background in sales are very good at this. It’s only after a good few years of experiencing life (one of the benefits of getting older!), that you begin to realise that some people will sound confident about anything at all, whereas the trick is to ascertain whether they really have the facts at their fingertips, or whether what they are saying is just a lot of hot air.

In my 30 years of teaching I have seen many pupils give “speeches” asking to be considered for various positions of responsibility. In recent times, I have had to advise them that making a speech is not the same as an audition for “Britain’s Got Talent”. To be fair, some of their peers see through the confident rhetoric and gimmicks and start asking probing questions. But, equally, I have seen Mr and Miss Narcissist carry the day.

It is also true that I have often wished that the quiet but knowledgeable, thoughtful pupil would put themselves forward, So yes, I agree that we need to develop our less confident pupils in oracy.  Yet I do not want a world where people shout empty rhetoric at each other.

As another article has stated, oracy without knowledge leads to a situation where anger and passion substitute for analysis and exposure to an unexpected piece of factual information can derail the speaker. So yes, we need to develop confident speakers, but knowledge is crucial if ideas are to be challenged and argued appropriately.

Back in 1989 the former headmaster of Westminster School, John Rae, published a book, “Too little too late?” which gave his response to the newly introduced national curriculum. In it, he quotes Harold Macmillan’s classics tutor at Balliol college Oxford saying the following,

“Nothing that you will learn on the course of studies will be the slightest use to you in later life, save only that if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot and in my view that is the main if not the sole purpose of education.”

The sole purpose of education? I disagree. But “a” purpose of education? Absolutely. At the risk of breaking Godwin’s law,  history is littered with examples of demagogues who used their rhetorical skills to win people over. Those people who dismiss a knowledge based curriculum are not giving their pupils the vital tools they need to challenge the windbags and narcissists. That is what horrifies me.

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Back to the 1960s and 1970s with ASCL

Recently, I spotted a year 11 pupil (I dislike the word student unless used for 6th form or university) with a copy of “Anna Karenina” in her bag. Having studied some Russian, I asked her if she was enjoying it. She was. The book wasn’t on an exam syllabus and the pupil concerned had no Russian background or indeed any connection to Russia at all. She had just heard about the story.

A year 8 pupil I know is able to recite all the English monarchs from William the Conqueror. Just the sort of stuff which would get certain educationalists throwing up their hands in horror about mindless rote learning, facts without understanding etc. Yet this pupil was happy that they got far more out of a visit to the Tower of London as a result.

A year 9 pupil had a copy of a Roald Dahl book in German that he was reading and finding difficult. I said that one of the issues would be the use  imperfect, or simple past tense. He nodded, said he had heard about it and asked when we would look at this tense. In Year 10, I said. “Couldn’t we do it this year”, he asked? He was probably right. In MFL, KS3 textbooks simply don’t introduce tenses early enough. When I was teaching in Germany, the English perfect tenses were introduced in Chapter 3 of book 1 in the textbook I had. His comment gave me food for thought for planning my scheme of work, but I am limited in the curriculum time allocated to me.

I became extremely irritated when I read the following from John Dunford:

https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/long-last-narrow-knowledge-based-curriculum-being-rejected-across

What I dislike most about it is the conviction that a knowledge based curriculum is solely about passing exams. I suppose, to some head teachers looking at progress charts and spreadsheets, it is. Therefore it must be tempting to assume that a knowledge based curriculum is simply about poring over the exam spec and nothing else. I guess the advocates of child centred learning have a vested interest in promoting this viewpoint. Once you have convinced enough people that this is what a knowledge based curriculum is all about, you are half way to persuading them to adopt a non subject based approach, topic work, projects and learning how to learn, with the mantra that “this teaches the skills they will need for the future.”

I looked at the Whole Education website. I see nothing wrong with some of what it seems to advocate  eg. networking, collaboration between schools. Yet I disagree with the approaches to the curriculum which seem to be promoted, judging by the examples on the website. I almost found myself shouting at my tablet, “NONE OF THIS STUFF IS NEW”. Back in the 1970s, my local comprehensive was engaged with this. They had merged subjects together to create something called TRENDS, which stood for Talking, Reading, Enquiring, Noting, Discovering Self and Society. Did it last? No. Yet it was just the sort of thing Dunford would approve of, judging by the article. More recently, in Knowsley, the secondary schools were rebuilt to provide a learning environment supposedly fit for the future, with curricula to match. Did the “personalised” approach improve behaviour? No. Did it improve knowledge and skills? No. Are they still doing it? No.

“Tomorrow’s adults will be faced with problems about the nature of which we can have no conception. They will have to cope with the jobs not yet invented. They need a curriculum….that they can see as an organic whole, related to their present and future needs”

This was said by the headteacher of Nightingale County Secondary School in 1966. Over 50 years ago. I know we often look back with nostalgia to our youth, but please let’s not pretend that this sort of thinking is innovative. It isn’t!

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MFL could easily become the preserve of independent schools – despite the Ebacc

So, the Progress 8 scores are out and it appears that despite the Ebacc, MFL entries are falling. Mary Bousted of the NEU makes the following comment in this article:

“The decrease in the proportion of pupils entering the EBacc is largely driven by a decline in pupils taking languages at GCSE. This may reflect the difficulty schools are facing recruiting languages teachers. Or it may reflect a conviction amongst teachers and school leaders that studying computer coding or design technology or an appropriate vocational subject may be a much better use of many pupils’ precious learning time in schools.”

Hmm. I’m not too sure about that. My own belief is that the drop in numbers studying languages could be an over obsession with Progress 8 and the various algorithms used to track supposed progress. MFL tends to suffer in this regard, as even according to Ofqual’s own data, pupils achieve on average half a grade lower in languages than all other subjects. So, according to SLT, far better to reduce MFL to a minority subject, maybe just one language, with a couple of lessons a week in Year 7 and 8 and then made optional at GCSE. Even some grammar schools have gone down this route and the alarm bells started ringing when I was asked if I had seen School X’s MFL curriculum which had gone down that path.

This line of thinking is often justified by the reasoning that it is better that pupils study what they like, rather than what they don’t. After all, children will misbehave if they are forced to do what they don’t find immediately appealing, won’t they? It could put them off education. couldn’t it?  Interestingly, this argument is not made for English, maths and science.

Languages do not have the glamour appeal of the arts and take a long time to master. Once they are optional, the fall in the numbers is quite staggering, as I noticed when I looked at School X’s curriculum model, where less than 50% take a language to GCSE. And School X is a selective school. The percentages are lower in many non selective schools. At the moment languages remain compulsory at GCSE where I work, but I feel myself coming under increasing pressure for it to be optional. I admit it, my progress data is not as good as English, maths and science. Perhaps it should be. We have some pupils who do not achieve a pass. Probably they should. But it comes to something if you are told that you have failed to add value to pupils with B and A grades in MFL at GCSE or A level, because their Attainment 8/ALPS prediction indicated they should have got A or A*.

So does this matter? Well, I would say it does. As someone from a working class background whose parents knew no languages and did not go abroad, I am not sure whether I would have opted for it, had the subject been treated as a Cinderella subject – one language, 2 lessons a week.  Nowadays, when I visit #mfltwitterati,  I see MFL teachers trying to hook students into language learning through a variety of games and activities. Yet often, when I visit their school websites, I find the take up for GCSE is poor. The pupils are perfectly aware that GCSE is hard work. There is just so much to remember compared to everything else. And then you have to apply all that vocab and grammar.

Every now and then in teaching you get one of those moments that make you feel so proud. My most recent was on the school Open Day, when I heard a sixth form student tell some prospective parents that MFL was compulsory to GCSE and that she thought that was a good idea, because, back in year 9, she wouldn’t have opted for it if she had had the choice. She was unaware that I was in earshot. I think her grade was B, which no doubt was below some progress prediction, but she was pleased with it. Time and time again I see pupils far more proud of their C grade in MFL than their As and Bs in other subjects.

A well known independent school on the south coast of England recently advertised for a position of Head of German. The school teaches a range of languages already : French, Spanish, Mandarin and Russian. German had been dropped, but was now being reintroduced for all pupils. Most pupils there take two languages to GCSE. It annoys me that, thanks to an obsession with data, MFL could once again become the preserve of rich people who can afford independent schools, or pupils whose parents tell them to opt for it.

 

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Progress or attainment?

“You value attainment. I don’t. You have failed to understand that progress rules.”

A well known blogger once tweeted this to me. It is actually quite shocking when you think about it. An educator who says “I don’t value attainment”.

If David Laws’ book “Coalition” is to be believed, he takes the credit for persuading Michael Gove to make Progress 8 the key accountability measure f0r schools. According to Laws, Michael Gove “wasn’t, if truth be told, terribly good with numbers”. Perhaps that was why he was hoodwinked into a measure which I think he would have otherwise opposed. I’m not good with numbers either, but my initial scepticism about Progress 8 (later to become opposition) was rooted in the fact that I didn’t know of any other country in the world which used a similar system. If anyone knows otherwise please let me know.

Then I started to read that I wasn’t the only sceptic out there. Tom Sherrington came out with this article. Then I read this and this from James Pembroke. However, in addition to the points they make, I guess I have 3 main objections.

Firstly, supporters of the Progress 8 measure say that it forces schools to look at every pupil, rather than just those on the C/D borderline. This, I would contend, is impossible. You simply can’t focus everywhere. So isn’t it better to have a real “focus” and an attainment goal “a GCSE pass” at the end of it, rather than try to run countless intervention groups with every student who is below some spurious target grade? I have heard it said that, before Progress 8,  in some schools some departments only taught what was necessary for a C grade, in order to boost the 5 A* – C pass rate. I am sceptical about this, as there is always a kind of informal “competition” in schools for departments to achieve a string of top grades in their subject.
Secondly, the obsession with expected progress leads to the ludicrous situation where a teacher can be told they have “failed to add value” to a student who achieved an A grade at GCSE in their subject, a subject they may never have studied at KS3. I referred to this in a previous post. All those teaching hours, the homework, the marking, the hard work put in by both pupil and teacher simply dismissed in four words. After all, the attainment is irrelevant – what matters is whether they achieved above whatever target had been set. Really? Do we really believe that?
Thirdly, and this is arguably where my selfishness comes in, is the effect the Progress 8 measure could have on the curriculum, if SLTs throughout the country become obsessed with it. It is likely to lead to excessive curriculum time being allocated to English and mathematics, squeezing other subjects lower down the school. At this point someone may say to me, “well your subject is all right because MFL is in the Ebacc and schools will need to boost their Ebacc pass rate as a result of the government’s performance measures, right?” Well, wrong actually. Because of a little known change in the performance measure, namely an “average points score ” for Ebacc subjects, rather than a pass rate. The whole point of a baccalaureate type exam is that pupils need to pass all elements of it. However the government has rowed back from this idea and accepted an average points score, doubtless under pressure from SLTs terrified of compulsory MFL at KS4.

Having taught abroad and seen what pupils achieved there, I actually do believe it is possible for 90% of pupils to pass the range of Ebacc subjects, provided that the curriculum time is allocated appropriately and, crucially, the pupils know they have to pass all elements of it. The one element of the Ebacc which is most difficult to pass? Yes, you’ve guessed it, MFL. Ofqual’s own data shows that on average those that enter GCSE MFL get half a grade lower in the language.

So what you could end up with is even “academic” schools deciding that MFL isn’t worth the bother. Might as well accept a 0 in the MFL slot from the start. Even in schools which make it compulsory, there will be no desire from SLT to support the MFL department by allocating appropriate curriculum time to get their students over the threshold. MFL teachers will be breaking their backs to get the pupils to take the subject seriously, but could be undermined by an SLT thinking it’s not worth the hassle. They are likely to be criticised if a significant portion do not pass it, but may not get support if they beg their SLT to tell pupils to prioritise their weakest subject for intervention (again, likely to be MFL). After all, the Progress 8 Ebacc buckets are easily filled with science and humanities (or all science if students do triple sciences). Maths and English (double points) could end up being massively promoted and MFL could end up with the worst of both worlds, a subject where SLTs might reluctantly enter pupils for GCSE but without the necessary curriculum time or intervention support it may need.

However, I have somewhat strayed from my title, progress or attainment. When I take an exam, I want to pass. I don’t care whether I made more or less progress than whatever some algorithm decided I should have made. I want to pass. When I studied for a GCSE at night school, I passed. I was delighted. I had attained a qualification. I cannot accept a measure which might have said to my teacher at night school that they failed to add value to my education.

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