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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The value of an academic curriculum

I gather some university PGCE tutors are understandably upset when their training of teachers is criticised. I actually enjoyed my PGCE course. Yes – progressive stuff was pushed, but we weren’t forced into it. The conventional view at the time was that moving schools from local control was a bad idea. I remember writing an essay arguing the opposite – that by allowing every school to opt out of local control, we could have a truly national education service (sounds like Labour party policy in 2017!). My lecturer disagreed, but wrote me an excellent reference.

Back in the late 1980s, I was training to be an MFL teacher when communicative language teaching was at its height. The accepted wisdom was that grammar shouldn’t be taught and that children would work out the rule for themselves. A few lecturers had moved to a position whereby it was acceptable to tell children about grammar if they asked about it, but otherwise don’t bother with it. I had assumed that we would be given strategies for introducing the “less able” children to grammatical concepts and terminology, but was surprised to find that this was not the case. “It’s all too difficult for them” seemed to be the premise. I remember that we were all asked to name the textbook used in our schools for teaching German. Mine was “Deutsches Leben” a 1950s tome typical of its epoch (“Werner – let’s look at the map while your mother and Uschi do the washing up”), which was ridiculously out of date in the egalitarian 1970s. The lecturer smiled. “It’s amazing how many people who used these sort of textbooks go on to study languages”, he mused.

Teaching English in eastern Europe in the 1980s, the classes there used a similar textbook to learn English. I was quite embarrassed by it at the time, giving as it did a totally outdated picture of the UK, interspersed with texts about British communists I had never heard of (Harry Pollitt?). By the time they left school, the children were incredibly dismissive of the book and the lessons in it. Yet I remember thinking at the time, “Yes – but your English is superb considering that you have never been outside your country and had no access to UK media”.

There is a danger that if you start defending the past you end up being classified as a Luddite wearer of rose tinted spectacles, wallowing in nostalgia for a bygone age. Not with me. In my 1970s grammar school I remember some good teaching, but I also remember the bad stuff. The bullying which was often ignored because it was thought to make a man of you, the petty rules, the petty tyrannies, the crazy punishments. I am glad that education has moved on from this. However I also remember an atmosphere of scholarship, where the head and the staff respected academic study in itself, rather than just a means to an examination certificate. Staff frequently went “beyond the syllabus” and we certainly did not spend lesson time poring over mark schemes and success criteria.

I get quite irritated when I see very successful people denigrate and dismiss their education. I remember arguing with a lecturer who was convinced that grammar teaching was harmful. “Has it harmed you?” I asked. “Well yes, yes it has. I’m not very creative” was the response. This from a man who had written books and papers on his subject. When you have knowledge of something, there is always a danger that you forget the effort it took to gain that knowledge, or how that knowledge has helped you in your life or career.

I agree with Amanda Spielman about a damaging trend in the education system of today which seems to view the academic curriculum as just a means of obtaining “badges and stickers”. I think she is right to say that Ofsted will focus on the curriculum offered by schools. Yet I fear that she will be told that it is a choice between constant examination preparation, or a “Claxton” curriculum of children learning how to learn. Or she may be told something on the lines that “the curriculum we have is what we deem appropriate for our particular students” and that this will be used to justify decisions to enter students for any qualification which is likely to raise the school’s Progress 8 score, to give excessive curriculum time to English and mathematics, or to discourage students from persevering with subjects less likely to contribute positively to that score (eg. MFL).

As long as Progress 8 exists, the focus of a school will inevitably focus on the mechanics of boosting that score, rather than scholarship. So, in short, before we denigrate the education we received, perhaps those of us who succeeded in that admittedly flawed system of the past (yes, I know, there were plenty who didn’t) should consider ourselves lucky that we went to schools which did not have to worry about such measures and could focus on academic scholarship. The challenge was always to get a larger number of schools to focus on this, hence Harold Wilson’s designation of comprehensives as “grammar schools for all”. I guess a school focussing on the mechanics of boosting Progress 8 is better than a school focussing on some of the more whacky 1970s curricula (project based learning etc). But that doesn’t stop me being nostalgic for a time when an academic curriculum could be prized for its own sake, rather than a tiresome necessity for obtaining exam certificates and a Progress 8 score.



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You failed to add value!

Every time I hear a presentation explaining Progress 8, or indeed any of the various measures used to track so called “progress”, my heart sinks. This could be because I am not a mathematician and do not find such things inherently fascinating. But what I find most alarming is when such measures are presented without the slightest acknowledgement that the rationale behind them may be flawed. That whole business of saying you can predict with accuracy what a child’s attainment at GCSE will be in every subject because of English and maths scores when the child was 11.

It was the same with “levels of progress” I remember. When the government abolished levels I was surprised at how long it took so many people to acknowledge that the whole concept of levels was flawed. For many, the reaction seemed to be “they’ve taken away a means of measuring progress – how dare they!” ASCL was particularly enraged until some brave souls broke ranks and (shock, horror) agreed with Tim Oates that the whole concept of levels might be flawed. Up until that point the statistical validity of the measure was not questioned.

I sometimes wonder if I am alone in finding it somewhat depressing to be told that I and my colleagues may well have “failed to add value” to a student who achieved a string of top grades at GCSE. In my case, modern languages, a pupil often arrives without having studied a language at all at primary. Even if they have, they are likely to have taken the GCSE in a different language (eg. German, Latin) to the one they studied at primary (usually French or Spanish). So a pupil starts with no knowledge of a language and ends up with an A grade at GCSE in that language, only for the teachers to be told they have “failed to add value” to that pupil, if the KS2 SATS indicated a high Attainment 8 score. The fact that we have opened the pupil’s eyes to a whole new way of communicating, that the pupil has gained knowledge and skills in a whole new field of study, the hours spent planning lessons and marking work, even the fact that the pupil may be continuing the subject to A level counts for nothing. And not just in languages. Attainment and academic study in the whole secondary curriculum can be dismissed with “Well, you failed to add value.” Whole fields of academic study reduced to a number. And all because of scores based on KS2 SATs in maths and English.

A similar situation exists at A level, where the ALPS system is used by many schools to predict outcomes based on average GCSE attainment. Apart from the fact that A level study is very different from GCSE study, a student may study a whole new discipline at A level, one they did not study at GCSE. Let’s say they achieve an B grade. But what if their ALPS prediction was an AABB? Again, all your hard work in teaching that student, the conversations you will have had with them, the support you will have provided and the extra knowledge and skills the student will have gained can be dismissed with the withering statement “well, you failed to add value.” The implication is that you as a teacher are worthless.

To me, this is the biggest drawback of making progress an end in itself. It encourages schools to focus, not on the curriculum, but a number. Never mind what the pupil studies – the main thing is the Progress 8 figure the pupil ends up with, as that will effect the whole school’s Progress 8 score. It is no wonder that organisations like PiXL are desperate to find easy qualifications to boost that figure.

I went into teaching because I loved my subject and wanted to use it in my work and hopefully inspire others to study it. For that reason, I never found senior management an attractive idea. Yet I have recently discovered another reason why I could not be SLT. I can imagine delight in my school’s GCSE and A level results. I can imagine delight if (controversially!) those results are better than other schools locally and nationally. I can imagine delight in the range of extra curricular activities offered by my school. I can imagine delight in seeing my school lauded as a beacon of excellence and having parents queue up to enter their children.

But unfortunately, I know I just could not get excited about having a Progress 8 score better than the school down the road. I know I just could not get excited about reducing academic study to a number. And I know I could not be seduced into what Tom Sherrington memorably described as “a vortex of delusional, algorithmic data-worship.”


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The joys of transition

Apologies to anyone expecting something profound on the apparent drop in attainment at KS3. This is a light hearted take on teaching year 7 from a secondary perspective
You know when you are teaching year 7 when…
1. If you have planned a starter activity, it will be severely curtailed as it takes them five minutes to unpack their bags
2. They look at you with astonishment when you tell them to put their drinks back in their bags
3. A forest of hands greets you the moment they have sat down as they aim to be the first to ask if they can remove their blazer/jumper
3. Another forest of hands and panic stricken faces greets you when you are barely one sentence into your explanation of the task or activity
4. A challenging question to the class is met by deafening silence, followed by a lone pupil at the back raising their hand. In answer to your carefully thought out question comes the statement “I need to go for my music lesson”
5. The pupil who left the class for a music lesson returns after three minutes, having got the time wrong…
6. You are asked if you mind them using both sides of the paper in a test.
7. Copying from the board is carried out at an average speed of two words a minute, assuming they have found their pen first.
8. The child holding a pen like a pole is surprised when you point out that their handwriting speed is slow as a result.
9. The child who writes at right angles is surprised when you tell him/her that this will not be allowed in tests and they should try to write without resting their head on the desk
10. You need to allow 5 minutes for them to write the homework in their diaries
11. A voice shouts out “When do we hand it in?” after you have told them that their homework is to revise for a test.
12. A child stays behind at the end to inform you solemnly that their hamster has died….
Anyone like to add to this list?!
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So how far can you study the culture without studying the language?

Anecdote 1

“So, what did you think of England?” I asked my Japanese student who had just visited England for the first time, staying with a family to practise English.

“It’s a bit like Japan”, came the unexpected answer.

I nearly fell off my chair. Part of Japanese “culture”, as I understood it, was a belief that Japan is rather unique. Yet here was a Japanese person drawing a direct parallel between her country and England. (I say England, rather than the UK as I have to point out to the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish that many foreigners use the word England to refer to the whole lot). I pressed her for more details.

“Well, they don’t always say exactly what they mean……..”

Anecdote 2

Class of adults of mixed nationalities (10 students). Good level of English, now in the UK on a study course.

Teacher (British national) “I’d like it if you could finish the poem by next lesson.”

Out of the class of 10 motivated students, only 2 people finished the poem. The British national teacher couldn’t understand why.

As a friend of mine who was a member of the class reported to me later, “Well, why didn’t he tell us we had to finish it, instead of just saying he would like it?”

The Guardian article  by Simon Jenkins makes the erroneous claim that you can teach culture without language. Only up to a point, I would say. He then comes out with the tired old assumption the computers make translation redundant as a skill. Any MFL teacher will tell you about the horrors of Google Translate, but I think my historian friends will confirm that Bismarck’s skilful editing of the Bad Ems telegram, missing out essential courtesies, caused the Franco Prussian war, even though his editing did not alter the basic facts of the message. In the 20th century it took a while before anyone realised that there were different words for “apologize” in Japanese and started wondering whether the Japanese had used the correct one when apologizing for their role in WW2. And does the English word “cosiness” really convey the meaning of the German “Gemuetlichkeit” or the Danish “hygge”? Not really.

The way some languages go into far more detail than English does, when classifying family relations for example, tells us a lot about the attitude to family in the cultures that speak those languages. Equally important is the way many foreigners, who use different pronouns for “you” depending on whether it is a formal situation or not, do not always appreciate the Anglo American “first name terms immediately” approach. Or the interesting situation which I have witnessed, where a German (speaking in English) tells his new English acquaintance that his name is Thomas, but then is addressed as “Herr Zimmermann” by a junior in the organisation (speaking in German), whom he has known for much longer.

In my conversations with foreigners who have learnt English and now speak it fluently, I have heard that they often find it strange that so many English people assume that that being foreign meant that they had a natural gift for English and just picked it up, or that they must have learnt from native speakers, or spent time in the UK. In the vast majority of cases this is not the case. They spent ages learning English grammar at school (such as the difference between simple and progressive tenses, which some anti SATs campaigners believe is too demanding for English 11 year olds….). They learnt English strong verbs by heart and were tested on them. In many cases it was not that their teaching was “communicative” or even that they started at a very young age. However, when they did start learning English, they certainly had more than the one or two hours a week which curriculum planners in the UK think is adequate for MFL.

I have blogged previously here about the need to raise expectations in MFL. Unless we persuade the government to recommend/incentivise more curriculum time for MFL within an academic year, rather than spreading into primary with just one lesson a week, articles such as those by Jenkins will become more frequent. But those with influence in MFL need to stress the standards that could be achieved, rather than enthusing about mediocrity. I have yet to find one of these foreigners (who now speak such good English) tell me that what incentivised them at school was receiving a reward every time they asked to remove their jacket in the target language……


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Metacognition and eduspeak – a distraction

The following post by the Quirky Teacher got me thinking.

It seems to me that there are ideas in education which are “simply assumed to be effective by circular argument”, to quote Kevin Stannard. Learning styles was one such idea until it was debunked. However, other ideas are still doing the rounds. The belief that it is vital for our pupils to be familiar with terms such as formative assessment, summative assessment, peer assessment, self assessment, growth mindset, Blooms taxonomy etc – all in the name of Assessment for Learning – is leading me to the conclusion that AfL is ripe for the chop.

I have blogged previously here about the supposed sine qua non of sharing success criteria at the beginning of lessons. Dylan Wiliam’s book “Embedded Formative Assessment” is almost taken as gospel on this point. It has even found its way into adult training courses, as I discovered on a first aid course recently, although at least we didn’t have to copy the objective for each unit. Obviously all my teachers at school were totally ineffective as they did not share the success criteria with me every lesson.

I was sad to read that the sharing of success criteria is now a “non negotiable” at a school I once taught at. In the course of my teaching career I have observed great lessons where no success criteria were shared with the learners. Equally, I have observed mediocre lessons where they were. Moreover, as David Didau points out in “What if everything you knew about education was wrong”, it is often the case that that we do not expect our pupils to have grasped something after just one lesson.

Reading Dylan Wiliam’s “Embedded Formative assessment” I came across this line on P.152. “There is no doubt that activating students as owners of their own learning produces substantial increases in learning”. I guess we all accept this, as we ordinary classroom teachers do not have time to do the research and we trust that people who write books on education will have done so. Yet if it were so effective, one would expect it to be “embedded” in the education systems of high performing countries.

Later than everyone else it seems, I am reading Lucy Crehan’s “Cleverlands”, which looks at the education systems of the world’s top performing education systems. I have yet to finish the book and if I have missed something in what I have read thus far, I am ready to stand corrected. That being said, I would have thought that if the sharing of success criteria, the language of metacognition, mini whiteboards and traffic lights really did result in substantial increases in learning, I would expect to see frequent reference to these techniques being used in the top performing countries. I would also expect that these techniques would be mentioned in Crehan’s Chapter 17 “Five Principles for High-Performing, Equitable Education Systems”. I jumped ahead in the book to look, but I couldn’t see them. This should surely make us pause for thought before we set out certain “non negotiables” in teaching and learning policies.

To me, it seems that the more students are worrying about the process of learning, rather than the content, the more likely it is they will be thinking about the wrong things. Rather than worrying about whether a particular task is a “formative” or “summative” assessment, I would rather my pupils concentrate on the subject matter and leave me as the teacher to decide what kind of assessment a task might have. Rather than holding up a red traffic light the moment they don’t understand something, I would rather they continued to concentrate as it might well make sense to them later on. If they are really stuck they can always see me at the end of the lesson.

My first year in teaching was spent in a school in eastern Europe. At the end of the year, one of the high achieving pupils said to me that she hadn’t really understood much in my first lesson with the class.

“Oh”, I said, “you should have stopped me!”

“Oh no, I realised that it was good for me to hear so much English and that I needed to concentrate” was her reply.

Now that’s what I call growth mindset!



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