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

  1. I think your criticism of people’s “obsession with data” is a case of shooting the messenger. OK, much of the data in schools is poor – so the messenger is often giving a garbled message and really does deserve to be shot. But criticizing people’s reliance on *bad* data is one thing, criticizing *the* data, data-in-principle, is another. Just because education does something badly, doesn’t mean that it is not worth trying to do it well.

    Secondly, in this case, the message is actually quite accurate. MFL is hard (particularly if you don’t have the money to send little Johnny on foreign holidays and immersive exchange trips) and there are other priorities for schools & pupils who are struggling to deliver the RRRs. MFL is basically quite expensive. I suspect that it is probably right that doing MFL badly is boring, ultimately not very useful, and a general turn-off from education more generally. As they would have said in Apollo 13, this is not an instrumentation problem – is a real one.

    Should MFL be done well, should poorer children be given an opportunity to broaden their horizons? Absolutely. But this is difficult to do (and, I suggest, something that we will only manage to do properly when we have better digital systems, backed by more and better data). In the meantime, don’t pretend that the answer is ignoring the data that is telling us about a very real problem.

    BTW. I still owe you a post in respond to your tweet about criterion referencing. It’s coming – but I’m afraid my blogging tempo is slow…


    Liked by 1 person

    • fish64 says:

      The problem with the Progress 8 and target setting is summed up here
      As for the “doing something badly” argument, it depends what you mean. Success in MFL is reliant on memory. Children studying it get disillusioned when they find they cannot remember so much of the stuff from previous lessons. Over my 30 years of teaching I have seen many show lessons in MFL designed to highlight “best practice”, but however impressive the individual lesson is, it all comes to nothing if pupils have only 1 or 2 lessons a week in the MFL, because the student will find it hard to remember it (the school I taught at in Germany had 4 lessons a week of English and 3 lessons a week of French in all year groups).
      Going back to the data issue – my scepticism is that I do not know of any other European country which tries to measure progress in education as we do. The data obsession seems more prevalent in the Anglophone world

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello again,

    I don’t have any problem with the argument against Progress 8 (of which I don’t have any experience myself) – but this does not amount to an argument against data.

    There are three arguments made by Ben Newmark:

    1. That KS2 data, which provides the initial benchmark, is unsafe. I am sure – it is a central argument of my “Curriculum Matters” ( that single-shot exams are inherently unreliable. But this is an argument against *bad* data, not against data-as-such.

    2. That socio-economic context makes no difference. I agree: of course socio-economic context makes a difference. But socio-economic context can be represented by data – so the problem that is being identified is again not about data-as-such, but the poor use of data – in fact, it is about our *lack* of data. One could also usefully ask *why* socio-economic context made a difference. I would bet that while some of the difference came down to pure wealth (translating as e.g. foreign holidays in the MFL context), much of it was a proxy for prior attainment, particularly measured in terms of positive attitudes. Again, the problem is not data, but our lack of data.

    3. The difference in value between GCSE grades is uniform. This will depend on subject, but I have no doubt that this is frequently true. Again, a central argument of my “Curriculum Matters” is that we are far too trusting of our data. The consistency of data can and should be checked by constant corroboration. If this were done, any unevenness in the presumed progression rate would quickly show up, as would any inconsistency of exemplars chosen to illustrate or apply some criterion reference (see my argument in response to Dylan Wiliam’s and Daisy Christodoulou’s argument about rubrics, at

    In the argument you select for your reply, you choose the supposed distinction between performance and learning, on the basis that students often get something right in the context of one lesson but soon forget it. Yes again. But that does not invalidate performance-as-such, but the over-reliance on single performance. And again, this is an argument that I dealt with in my post at

    This is what I mean by the “doing something badly” argument. Education does data badly and wrongly concludes that the problem lies with data and not with the education system’s poor use of it. It is the same argument used by the child who says “French/Maths/Latin is boring” because he/she is not very good at it.

    With respect to your argument about progress and learning, I do not know what the difference is in normal usage, except (1) that “learning” is more specific to the educational context and “progress” is more general; and (2) progress is by definition a good thing while learning is not. Any student is deemed to make progress in respect of the extent to which they learn those things that their teachers are trying to teach them. They are not deemed to be making progress in respect of how well they learn to become addicted to drugs, to be idle, gluttonous, or to beat up their girlfriends.

    With respect to the measurement of progress, if other European countries have not dabbled as much as we have with value-add systems, maybe it is because very many of them are still wedded to absolute selection, of a sort that we abandoned fifty years ago on the grounds of social divisiveness. What is the average percentage of students in a basket of European countries that end up re-sitting one or more school years because they fail end-of-year school exams, set at an absolute standard of acceptable progress for that year – and how does that figure compare to the practice in the UK? According to Wikipedia ( Germany, Italy, Austria, Netherlands, France, Finland and Switzerland all use grade retention and in my experience of France and the Netherlands, it was at least until recently really very common – I have been told by several people that most people might expect to resit at least one school year. Doesn’t that suggest a pretty hard-edged notion of progress in European education systems?



    • fish64 says:

      Crucial difference – in continental Europe it is a basic minimum standard that you have to achieve. But in the UK the emphasis is now on whether a student made appropriate progress (according to some spurious algorithm), rather than met a minimum standard


  3. I agree there is a difference – between what Daniel Koretz calls “a cut score on a continuum of performance” and monitoring of performance right along that scale. But we know that cut-score thresholds cause all sorts of problems – they distort the amount of attention given to pupils, give unachievable targets to some, while encouraging others, who can easily achieve the threshold, to cruise. Although the British attempt to monitor progress right along that continuum may still be implemented poorly, the attempt is surely worth making. Nor is it the case that the French education system, to take the example I am most familiar with, is only interested in measuring minimum standards and then lets students develop as they like: it tends to be highly structured and didactic at all levels and is fiercely competitive at the top end. French students studying for entrance to Grandes Ecoles generally go to special preparatory schools and seem to work much harder than any English student I have met studying for Oxbridge.


  4. Indeed – I do not suggest that students can cruise in the French system, but that they *would* be able to cruise if your characterisation was correct, that they set only a minimum standard. In fact, the French do not merely set a minimum standard – but measure progress all the way up the scale by a succession of threshold tests, with associated consequences that would send the whole profession in the UK into open revolution, I should imagine. Surely a more ipsative, value-add approach is more humane, probably more effective, and I imagine (given current attitudes in the UK profession), politically necessary.

    It seemed to me that you were using the example of the rather brutal assessment systems on the continent as a reason why we should abandon our attempt to create a rather more sophisticated and humane assessment system. But maybe I have misunderstood your argument. Are you in fact arguing for the European system, with regular end-of-year exams, and those who fail those exams re-sitting the year?


  5. fish64 says:

    The system in Germany was not so much end of year exams, but frequent tests throughout the year with pass thresholds. I do think the European system as much to commend it, but yes, I am aware of the drawbacks. My thoughts on this.


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