Why we can’t go on like this – Language qualifications in the UK

Why we can’t go on like this – Language qualifications in the UK

This is the full, original paper by Paul Steer, of which an edited version appears in the Friday 8th May 2015 edition of TES (pg8). 
The furore around the announcement by some exam boards that they will no longer provide GCSEs and/or A Levels in ‘lesser taught’ languages (such as Turkish, Polish, Bengali and Gujarati) begs some big questions. Given that the boards are a mixture of not-for-profits and commercial organisations, it is clear this is not simply a matter of money. The challenges are systemic and the root causes are a mixture of cultural attitudes, failed infrastructures and policy failures over many years and different governments.

Some sorry statistics
Formal education has seen an overall decline in the study of traditionally taught foreign languages while the study of lesser taught and community languages has failed to grow. At the same time it should be noted that the online language learning market is booming through a combination of widespread internet use, access to tablets and mobiles and a desire for more flexible modes of learning; this boom is not captured in national statistics.

Any rational analysis of trends in school language education reveals that all languages, apart from English, are in danger of becoming ‘lesser taught’. The number of A Levels awarded in all available languages in 2011 was 40,685 and by the summer of 2014 it was 32,680*. Many languages departments in universities are facing a real threat of extinction. Unless something is done soon to correct this we will wake up one morning to learn that GCSE French and German are also for the chop.

A history of policy failures
The problems go back a long way; they were already being described as historic by the last Labour government, when it launched its ambitious 2002 National Languages Strategy. Back in a time of plenty, when there was a lot less anxiety about public spending, the Strategy set out an agenda for the coming decade and promised ‘to achieve a step change in language competency in this country’. It called on a wide range of communities, educators, employers and institutions to work together to deliver this step change which would see languages learning embedded from early years through to higher education, in communities and in the workplace.

But for all its emphasis on grass roots, the Strategy was characterised by a series of centrally set targets and timelines to be driven forward by what was then an extensive machinery of state (LEAs, LSC, SSCs, SSDA, Ofsted, QCA, NACELL, SLCs, BECTa etc), all to be coordinated by a National Director of Languages. In the end, there were too many players and that which claimed to be a strategy was more like an inventory of disparate initiatives and quangos with overlapping authorities and vague accountabilities. By the time the money ran out and a new government instigated a ‘bonfire of the quangos’, the strategy was already doomed.

Removal of the statutory requirement
There are two legacies of the Strategy that should not be forgotten. One, in 2004, was the removal of the statutory requirement to provide language learning at Key Stage 4 in schools. This was well-intentioned; the mandatory study of a language was leading to a lot of disaffected young people having to sit through French lessons for two years with little prospect of picking up more than a single phrase, let alone a GCSE. But the result of the policy was a massive drop in take up of languages at GCSE and an exodus of language teachers from the profession. The teaching infrastructure for languages has never really recovered from this; this is probably also the point at which, for Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR), the provision of language GCSEs, complete with their complex assessment model, dipped into the red.

Creation of a languages ladder
The second legacy, more short-lived, was the development of a new set of qualifications: The Labour government declared “We will introduce a new voluntary recognition system to complement existing national qualifications frameworks and the Common European Framework. This would give people credit for their language skills and form a ladder of recognition from beginner level to a standard which sits alongside GCSE, A Level and NVQs.” This hit on an important point –that existing language qualifications in the UK were not flexible enough to support the delivery of languages across a wide range of context and settings.

This part of the strategy led OCR to develop Asset Languages. Asset Languages was a first class product, providing assessment and support materials from primary to adult, from school to work contexts, from beginner to undergraduate levels. It was bite sized, expressed in simple outcomes and aligned to the European languages framework. At its peak, we offered 25 different languages including all major European languages, and an impressive range of other languages including Mandarin, Gujarati and Cornish. Asset was developed, in the first instance, with financial support from the public purse although OCR continued to develop it thereafter and, by agreement, to make it available to all at cut price.

Another initiative bites the dust
As the languages strategy began to decompose and funding melted away the vision for Asset as a national solution began to wither as well. OCR was finally forced to serve notice on these qualifications (472 of them) in 2012 after a survey of the dwindling customer base. They all consistently said that the nail in the coffin was the withdrawal of almost any route to the funding of community languages and the new government’s decision that Asset languages would not count towards school performance tables because they were ‘smaller’ than a GCSE. The failure of Asset may have cost OCR millions and led to the redundancy of its support team, but the opportunity missed for the nation is of a far greater scale.

The short life of a languages Diploma
A brief mention should be given to the Diploma in Languages. This was one of the ‘academic’ diplomas, along with Science and Humanities, which were announced by the Labour government in October 2007. The sorry tale of this attempt to develop Diplomas to rival A Levels is well-documented. Heavily bankrolled by the exam boards, this costly and unrealistic programme of development was axed by the incoming coalition government.

The premature passing of the EBC
Before long, exam boards were investing again, this time in developing English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) for a high stakes government franchise. After the exam boards had sunk huge costs into this project, the government announced in February 2013, through the media, that the franchise plan had been abandoned.

The dawn of general qualifications reform
Instead, exam boards should begin on a qualification reform programme involving the redevelopment of every GCSE and A Level they offered over a phased three year timescale. The reformed qualifications would be linear and early entries and resits would be heavily reduced cutting exam boards’ potential future income by roughly a third.

The Ebacc gives languages a boost
The coalition government’s interest in language education has been limited to GCSEs and A Levels. The introduction of the EBacc school performance measure saw the inclusion of GCSE languages within this measure and there was much evidence of schools scurrying around to hire language teachers (offset by the laying off of D&T teachers), and this provided a fillip to entries in MFL in the summer of 2013. But 2014 entries suggest, however, that this has been more of a blip than a trend as schools work out how they can achieve the EBacc and the forthcoming ‘Progress 8’ measures whilst circumnavigating languages.

The withering of vocational language provision
The EBacc puts languages into an unashamedly academic core; ancient Greek and Latin are also included and the then Education Secretary Michael Gove lauded the intellectual discipline that comes with mastering another language. Vocational language qualifications are outlawed from school performance indicators so ‘Mandarin for business’ or ‘French for cabin crews’ are off the menu. This has speeded the downfall of other OCR languages qualifications such as its once widely recognised Certificate in Business Language Competence and its language NVQs. Two years ago, VLC training was providing an innovative language support scheme to a network of schools in England using OCR Languages NVQs. This contributed substantially to OCR awarding over 130,000 NVQ language certificates in 2012, but the exclusion of these achievements from performance tables has meant the near-collapse of this scheme. There is no evidence that the young people who would have been involved are now taking language GCSEs instead, and it seems more likely that most will no longer be exposed to any foreign language learning.

Community languages
If its policies have marginalised vocational language learning, the coalition government has been silent on the issue of community and lesser taught languages. Occasionally there have been nods towards the need to increase learning in economically important languages such as Mandarin, but the mechanisms for increasing the number of teachers and widening demand are sketchy. There seems to be no view on the use of language GCSEs in communities where that language is widely spoken. It has no view as to whether GCSE languages achieved by native speakers of that language should count towards performance tables. Interestingly, a review of schools offering GCSE Turkish revealed that approximately 25% of candidates taking the exam were not enrolled at the school or institution where they took the exam (such candidates are referred to by exam boards as ‘private candidates’).

There are major cultural benefits in maintaining and recognising a language within its community but the use of GCSE can be problematic. Language GCSEs are not designed for native speakers. The awarding process is most reliable where the range of ability is spread across the cohort, and where there are a large number of candidates. Neither of these is true for the lesser taught languages. With low uptake qualifications it is also difficult to recruit and maintain an experienced team of examiners and setters. Exam papers in lesser taught foreign languages, especially with foreign language fonts, are at high risk of containing errors which must then be reported to the regulator.

Pressure across the system
Meanwhile, the current qualification reform programme is creating immense pressure on the system through its complexity and ambitious timescales. The regulator Ofqual and DfE have both stipulated a range of requirements which continue to multiply and evolve. The requirements for the near-elimination of coursework and teacher assessment have led to a great deal of re-engineering. This means that performance in languages which would previously have been marked by the teacher will now be marked by the boards, adding to running costs. Boards have had to make a case for tiering of language GCSEs to counter the policy preference for untiered qualifications. Issues of differentiation and achievement at A Level – originally researched and highlighted by the boards - led to a regulatory report and a string of recommendations about the design and marking of A Level assessments. The A Level content was reviewed and transformed by ALCAB – a body set up to support HE involvement in developing and monitoring A Levels. Funding of ALCAB has now been withdrawn and the organisation has been mothballed, but the Minister for Schools wrote to the exam boards expressing his desire that they should carry forward the important work of engaging with higher education over the monitoring of A Levels for which ALCAB was originally intended.

Unresolved issues
The qualification reform programme requires routine and frequent meetings between the boards, Ofqual and the DfE. In October 2014 such a meeting was used to revisit in detail issues that had been raised in relation to the lesser taught languages. All boards were concerned about issues of comparability, costs of development, quality assurance of papers, shortage of assessors and more. The department was asked to consider recognition of alternative qualifications, whether there could be a review of the existing range of languages (which had been in place since 1994), and, whether it had a role in securing continuity of provision. Crucially, the boards asked whether the DfE would provide an environment for them to discuss how they might collaborate over offering these costly subjects without falling foul of competition law. In the end, none of these issues were resolved.

Three imperatives
Policy decisions made in haste (or the heat of an election) are often repented at leisure. If the Parties insist that exam boards continue to offer community and lesser taught languages then three things MUST happen:

    1. Teaching must be well resourced – teachers must be available to assist the development and running of learning programmes

    2. The infrastructure must support rigorous and robust examination –this requires input from external subject experts to ensure that the content is accurate and up-to date. Recruitment of assessors who have a teaching qualification and the right expertise in both the target language of the qualification and in assessment, is a particular risk with ‘minority’ languages. We also need to ensure that as well as meeting these requirements, assessors have no vested interests in the areas where they assess i.e. a teacher cannot assess the work of children who are based in his or her own locality, cannot set questions and mark them, and so forth.

    3. Key drivers must be in place - unless there is some provision in league tables or Ofsted’s assessment of schools it is unlikely that the critical mass will be reached that can sustain both entrant numbers and the examiner, teacher and subject expert communities needed to maintain a robust qualification.

OCR has not ruled out developing GCSEs and A Levels in some or all of these languages completely but would only wish to do so in the context of a comprehensive approach that tackles associated issues such as treatment in accountability frameworks, an increase in the number of available teachers and a widening of the number of assessors who can design examinations together with others who can mark and grade them. Only if these matters are addressed will uptake rise.

Paul Steer
Head of Policy, Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR) 

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