The last word: this month in education - Paul Steer

The last word: this month in education - Paul Steer

Funding to continue for brightest students

On the face of it, the latest policy announcement of ‘funding for the brightest’ at 16-19 is good news for the AS Level. It seems to fund students to take four AS Levels in their first year, with the potential to drop down to three full A Levels in their second year. But the announcement does not refer to AS and seems to be about encouraging people to take four full A Levels over two years. Furthermore, overall reductions in funding levels (especially for sixth form colleges) still loom large and are not going to be balanced off by this policy. And the policy also intends to incentivise the taking of five A Levels. It seems unlikely that a programme of five A Levels is appropriate for most young people, however bright they are. Higher Education centres certainly aren’t asking for that many A Levels, but they are seeking broader skills and experiences which would not be accessed through taking another A Level.

GCSE English: How to assess spoken language?

The Ofqual consultation on assessing spoken language skills in GCSE English sets out a balanced and pragmatic approach. The assessment of practical skills is, generally, best carried out by teachers and the results are best reported separately from the results of exams. Ofqual recommends that candidate performance should be digitally recorded which makes perfect sense. The debate is around whether this should continue to be audio recordings or whether video should be used. In the era of the digital camera this would seem to make sense but only after we have conducted enough trials to see how to make best use of appropriate technology but, also, to give us a greater understanding of the impact on student performance and how those performances are assessed. 

Why are MFL A Levels unpopular?

Languages other than English are the subject of the new JCQ report on Languages A Levels. This takes a look at the technical design of Languages A Levels and highlights some of the challenges these qualifications present. It suggests that these A Levels are innately challenging for many learners with their requirements across the skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. It is interesting, given the current consultation on GCSE spoken language skills, that the report says of the A Level: “Writing and speaking tasks are most likely to test stretch and challenge”. The A Level Content Advisory Board's (ALCAB) recommendations for reformed A Levels in Languages included recommendations to increase the extent to which students become familiar with the culture, arts and history of the country associated with the language being studied. This adds to the burden of designing an A Level but might engage and interest a wider range of students; undoubtedly it would offer broader preparation for the study of languages in Higher Education.

Of course the real barriers to the uptake of languages in the UK go well beyond the design of the A Level. The APPG report advocates a ‘national framework for recovery’ of our nation’s poor linguistic skills. It cites familiar issues about infrastructure and lazy cultural attitudes about the dominance of English. Many of the points are reminiscent of the last Labour government’s Languages Strategy which put vast amounts of funds and effort into improving language education, especially at primary level. The strategy included the development of Asset Languages qualifications which have, sadly, withered on the vine. It seems it is time for a new languages strategy.

Lowest NEET rate for 20 years

Finally, it is great news that the number of 16-18 year old NEETS (Young people not in education, employment or training) is at its lowest for 20 years. Keeping people of this age group engaged and within a system of learning and training is essential to keeping them and their futures safe. It isn’t clear quite how this significant reduction has been achieved. There are many initiatives that are likely to have contributed: the publication of destination measures; greater school partnership working; traineeships; apprenticeships; UTCs… but surely the main cause of this improvement is the increase of the minimum age for participation in education and training. Now, there is an opportunity to investigate what courses and programmes are being taken by people who would previously have been at risk of becoming NEET - how engaged they are, what qualifications they are taking and eventually where their additional time in education or training might take them.

Paul Steer, Director of Policy and Strategy at Oxford Cambridge and RSA (OCR)

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