Languages ‘attainment benchmarks’ proposed to boost GCSE take-up

DfE will appoint panel to draw up non-statutory guidance for languages education for 7 to 14-year-olds

DfE will appoint panel to draw up non-statutory guidance for languages education for 7 to 14-year-olds

21 Oct 2022, 7:00

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Ministers plan to draw up new “benchmarks” setting out expected attainment levels in languages as they attempt to “improve” primary pupils’ transition into secondaries.

It is part of the government push to increase the uptake of languages at GCSE level and its pledge for 90 per cent of year 10 pupils entering the English baccalaureate (EBacc) by 2025.

Official data published yesterday shows that 87.6 per cent of pupils taking four EBacc subjects in 2020-21 were missing the language component, compared with 86 per cent in 2018-19.

The Department for Education plans to appoint a new advisory panel to draw up non-statutory guidance for languages education for 7 to 14-year-olds. It will be published later next year.

As part of that, an early contract notice states the panel will produce a document that “seeks to improve transition between key stage 2 and key stage 3, benchmarking expected attainment levels”.

The DfE said it could not provide further information as the benchmarks had not been drafted yet.

But Suzanne O’Farrell, a modern foreign languages consultant for the ASCL leaders’ union, said primary schools “did not have the infrastructure” to follow benchmarked attainment levels.

There was a lack of specialist teachers and access to training, she said.

“You can’t just say pupils have to achieve this, and this is what it looks like, without investing in the training that’s going to get teachers to be able to deliver that confidently.”

Half of primaries warn of languages challenge

The annual Languages Trends Survey, which polled 6,000 state primaries in England, found that 52 per cent cited “staff language proficiency” as a challenge to meeting national curriculum requirements.

One-fifth also said accessing language-specific professional development was a barrier.

languages GCSE

Meanwhile, Ofsted’s research review of languages education last year also cited “staff expertise” at primary school as a barrier to learning.

ASCL’s general secretary, Geoff Barton, said school leaders were “best placed” to make decisions relating to the curriculum based on the “individual needs” of children.

“New demands and expectations should not be introduced by the back door.”

But Ian Bauckham, the chief executive of the Tenax Schools Trust and chair of the modern foreign languages pedagogy review in 2016, said a lack of joined-up teaching within primaries left year 7 teachers “having to start again from scratch because everyone has learnt something slightly different”.

Ofsted and the Primary Languages Network said in a 2018 white paper this could lead to “demotivation” and could be a “contributory factor” to low uptake of languages at key stage 4.

GCSE entries for German fell 5 per cent between 2021 and 2022, while French and Spanish entries also fell 1.6 and 1.4 per cent respectively. 

Guidance for primaries will set ‘expectations’

“Having guidance read by primary schools around the country that sets some sort of expectations for what should be taught in KS2 is potentially a first step to addressing the problem,” Bauckham said.

It could also provide “sensible and worthwhile” support to non-specialists.

John Bald, an independent languages consultant and former Ofsted lead inspector, suggested guidance could also help to alleviate workloads.

“If you can assess where children are just by comparing their work with the guidelines, then you don’t have to do extra work to assess where they are,” he said.

But ASCL said it could limit schools’ ability to tailor language provision to specific circumstances.

“We remain concerned by the increasing centralisation of the curriculum beyond the national curriculum, through the growing frequency of non-statutory guidance,” said Barton.

O’Farrell said there were fears the guidance could be “used by Ofsted inspectors to judge schools rather just be ‘non-statutory’”.

Non-statutory guidance has been published by the DfE for subjects including maths, religious education and music.

Ofsted said it did not inspect against “non-statutory guidance, although some of it, such as the Department of Education’s governance handbook, underpins the handbook”.

The DfE did not comment.

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