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.