The proposals for the new MFL GCSE have come in for criticism from a large number of people and professional bodies.
The list of those who are opposed is impressive. They include the headteacher organisations ASCL, NAHT and HMC, three examination boards (AQA, Edexcel and Eduqas) and language associations ALL, ISMLA and NALA. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages has expressed its concerns.
Like most MFL teachers, I too have concerns. My main concern is the “frequency list” and the online tool where a text can be scanned to ascertain how many high frequency words it has. I worry about a “computer says no” approach to teaching, where texts are discarded because they don’t have enough high frequency words, rather than whether the texts are intrinsically interesting. I can also envisage organisations such as Pixl or the examination boards producing horrendous “tracker” spreadsheets where students have to give RAG ratings to each high frequency word and teachers required to organise interventions for students who didn’t know particular words well enough! I actually am opposed to a defined list of words for GCSE. I think working out possible meanings for unfamilar words is a skill all language students should have.
As I say, I think we shouldn’t have a defined word list. But there are people who think we should, and don’t mind that particular aspect of the new GCSE proposals They don’t oppose the new GCSE for that reason – they have some other area of concern. I am now going to attempt to list the different areas of concern that we MFL teachers have expressed on Twitter, with apologies if I have left out your particular one.
- The proposals have nothing to say about communication
- The proposals will lead to dull and uninspiring teaching.
- There is no opportunity to test spontaneous speaking – instead there will be a test of reading aloud. This is not communication.
- The proposals do not match the national curriculum
- The proposals are nothing like anything used to teach languages in other countries
- The proposals ignore a lot of SLA research
- We shouldn’t limit vocabulary to a defined list of 1700 high frequency words
- There’s no need for a focus on grammar as teachers already teach it.
- There’s no need for a focus on phonics as teachers already teach it.
- We don’t need a change just now as we’ve only just got used to the current spec.
- The composition of the panel which came up with the proposals was not transparent enough and needed to include a wider range of voices from the MFL community.
Having expressed areas of concern, we then express views on what the new GCSE should be about, eg.
- It should be all about communication.
- The current GCSE is basically fine, we just need to fix the grading.
- The current GCSE is basically fine, we just need to fix the listening and reading papers.
- The current GCSE topics need replacing to make them more appealing.
- We should leave GCSE as it is and just devise something like graded tests for those who find they cannot cope with a full GCSE course.
- We should keep GCSE as it is, but go back to allowing different tiers of entry for each “skill.”
- We should abolish GCSE entirely and have a sort of graded test, rather like grades used in learning a musical instrument.
- We should downgrade the writing element at GCSE and raise the profile of speaking.
And there are no doubt many other views!
The GCSE debate links to questions about MFL teaching generally. I have blogged about this in the past, but I will repeat the main areas of concern here:
a) We need fairer GCSE grading
b) We need examinations which are better designed
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
The new GCSE proposals attempt address points b) we need examinations which are better designed and f) UK language teaching methodology is wrong. This is actually quite brave, since points b and f are probably the most controversial in that, while most MFL teachers will concede there is an issue, it is these two points where opinion in the MFL community is most diverse.
Point a) We need fairer GCSE grading and point h) MFL needs far more curriculum time are obviously areas where there is the greatest unity in the MFL teaching community. But the panel which was convened to set out proposals for a new GCSE would obviously point out that their remit only covered the examination, with a consequent knock on effect on pedagogy. It may be that the new GCSE proposals will be tweaked slightly as a result of the consultation, but otherwise remain intact. It is after all the case that nothing is going to satisfy everyone.
So what would I do? While it is true that whatever is proposed has no chance of satisfying everyone, I believe a panel would have a greater chance of success if all the points are considered together. In other words, if a new panel were to be appointed, their remit should cover the whole MFL curriculum, not just the GCSE examination. And the format of the examination should not be considered until all the other points have been dealt with.
Finally, if a new panel were to be appointed, it has to command the respect of the profession, while satisfying the government that its proposals will not lead to “dumbing down”. To this end, I would say that any new panel needs to include teachers from schools which currently manage to both a) enter large percentages for MFL and b) achieve positive value added scores. This, I know is controversial, and is just my view anyway! Many would say that any teacher from any school should have the opportunity to be appointed, but in my view credibility requires proven success. This is not to say that the existing panel was not sufficiently “expert” – they obviously were – but there does seem to be agreement that more practising teachers should be included in any new panel.
It will be interesting to see what happens…