What are the implications of reforms to England’s MFL GCSEs?

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In the compulsory education sector, the role of national governments can be an important factor in the provision of, and priority attached to, language education. Recent MFL GCSE policy changes by the Department for Education (DfE) in England are a good example as the national government tries to encourage more school-age students to take up language GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education). But how have these proposals been received by language educators and what do the proposed changes mean for language education in England?

We’ll look at the new policy changes (proposed in January 2022) shortly, but it’s worth quickly reviewing the context in which these changes are being made. Recognising the importance of strong language skills to power growth in the global economy, successive administrations in England have attempted to address the declining popularity of foreign language study. In 2011, for example, the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) was introduced to encourage pupils to study more traditional subjects. This plan noted that: “Taking any ancient or modern foreign language GCSE counts towards the languages part of the EBacc.”

Yet the 2022 GCSE results in the UK indicate that the scheme has had little impact on the amount of students taking language exams. Although there was an overall increase in the number of students taking GCSEs overall, there was a clear decrease in entries for French, German and Spanish. The decline in German was particularly notable, dropping from 41,222 entries in 2019 to only 34,966 in 2022.


The proposed January 2022 MFL GCSE reforms

In the latest attempt to shore up language learning in English schools, the DfE announced plans earlier this year to make language subjects “more accessible and attractive for students, and boost take up by making it clearer what they need to know.” Students will begin to study these reworked courses from September 2024, with the first exams being held for 16 year-olds in summer 2026.

The changes respond to government research, which found that students felt that language courses were “too hard” and that it was difficult for learners “to see significant progress and relevance in their work.” As a result, the updated GCSEs will assess students ”on the most common vocabulary used in conversations and writing, as well as grammar and pronunciation, increasing clarity for teachers and improving the practical benefits for students.” More specifically, students will be expected to focus on “1,200 ‘word families’ at foundation tier GCSE and 1,700 ‘word families’ in higher tier GCSE.”

Whatever their personal feelings about such prescriptive lists, some teachers will be pleased to know exactly what has to be taught and what has to be learned. Similarly commitments to change listening assessments have been well received. One teacher commented: “At last, our students will be rewarded for what they know and not just their ability not to get caught out.”

The same teacher also highlighted that some of the changes might “inspire us to make improvements to our practice.” Greater focus, she identified, may be needed to teach phonics more explicitly and to better support students when delivering spontaneous speech.

However, although the new policies followed a period of consultation with key stakeholders, the wider reaction to the new qualifications was critical to say the least. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), spoke for many when expressing his concern that the reforms largely ignored “the widespread concerns of many language experts.” He continued: 

“We fear that rather than encouraging the take-up of languages, a curriculum which mainly focuses on memorising a long list of words will alienate pupils and prove counter-productive.

“At a time when pupils need to be enthused to learn languages, the Government has chosen to make GCSEs both prescriptive and grinding.”

This is echoed in feedback from other commentators, who argue the reforms will mean that the taught curriculum will focus “solely on a precise specification of the vocabulary, grammar and phonological features or ‘phonics’ to be taught, relegating other essential components of the language curriculum such as communicative and intercultural competence (Cazzoli, 2022).” As such, the reforms arguably treat language learning as just another subject, by requiring students to pay only minimal attention to “aspects of the contexts and cultures of the countries and communities where the language is spoken.”


Potential implications and unintended consequences

This criticism lies at the heart of much of the feedback supplied when consultation about the proposed changes was opened. The British Academy, the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences, called for a need to explore different models, such as “a portfolio of cultural learning resources, including short texts, videos or films, podcasts and recordings ranging from journalism and literature, to documentaries and entertainment.”

As well as arguing that such content was often used as “building blocks for confidence, cultural curiosity, empathy”, the Academy also argued that such cultural components would “tend to be taught more to socio-economically advantaged learners.” That their concerns have not been listened to has also caused concern that the language learning gap between schools will continue to broaden. The rationale being that less well-off schools will simply focus on grammar, phonics and vocabulary – after all that’s where assessment will be focused.

Yet the impact of the reforms will not just be felt in England’s school system. As Cazzoli 2022 goes on to argue, the new qualifications will also impact those learners going on to study language degrees at university. She fears that the new GCSEs will not prepare them “for the level of reflection and intellectual enquiry that is at the core of university learning.”

Perhaps most importantly, Dr Simon Hyde, general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents hundreds of leading private schools, argues: “This model will not give students the confidence in their language, both at examination level and as a life skill, to take forward into further studies, careers and personal endeavours.” That Doomsday scenario is merely an informed prediction, of course, but its impact on the formal and informal language learning sectors would be dramatic. As would the impact on Britain’s global standing and future economic development.

If you are asking yourself what are the main changes that you should be aware of now as the new GCSE draft specifications are out and how this will affect your teaching, take a look at this resource on our Sanako UK’s website: “The new GCSE draft specifications are out! What do I need to do?

If you’d like to find out more about how Sanako Connect could make your language teaching process easier and more efficient, please contact us now to arrange your FREE demo!

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