Schools

Rethink ‘flawed’ MFL GCSE reforms, heads and exam boards urge

Nine organisations question plan to make students learn a set of up to 1,700 frequently-used words

Nine organisations question plan to make students learn a set of up to 1,700 frequently-used words

modern foreign language MFL GCSEs

Unions, exam boards and subject associations have urged ministers to rethink their “fundamentally flawed” proposals to reform modern foreign languages (MFL) GCSEs.

In a joint statement, nine organisations warned that the plan to make students learn a set of up to 1,700 frequently-used words “will not ultimately result in greater engagement with modern foreign languages at GCSE level”.

Earlier this year, the government published revised subject content for French, German and Spanish MFL GCSEs alongside a consultation on the changes. Ofqual, the exams regulator, also consulted on new assessment objectives for the subjects to reflect the revised content.

The revised subject content document stated that students “will be expected to know 1,200 lexical items for foundation tier, and a further 500 lexical items for higher tier”.

The proposals have already prompted uproar. In May, the all-party parliamentary group for modern languages urged the Department for Education to think again after being “inundated with messages of concern” from across the education sector.

Now nine more organisations have added their voices to the criticism. The signatories include school leadership unions ASCL and the NAHT, as well as the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference.

The statement is also signed by subject associations the Association for Language Learning, the Independent Schools Modern Languages Association and the National Association of Language Advisers.

Exam boards AQA, Pearson Edexcel and WJEC Eduqas also signed the statement.

Proposed model of MFL learning ‘risky’

The signatories are concerned the proposals “do not promote the core communication elements of learning a language – listening, speaking, reading and writing – whilst also creating a risk of undermining the teaching of languages in both primary education and at A-level”.

“While the proposals were based on a segment of relevant published research, we note there is a considerable body of research which validates our concerns.

“We also note that the proposed model of learning and assessment is a risky one, given the lack of international precedent and absence of independent evaluation.”

The DfE announced in 2019 that an expert panel would review subject content for the three GCSEs to make them “more accessible”. The outcome of that review formed the proposals announced earlier this year.

The current subject content document, published in 2015, states that GCSE specifications should enable students to “deepen their knowledge about how language works and enrich their vocabulary”, but contains no specific requirement for the number of words pupils must know.

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said there “seem to be very few people, language experts included, who agree with the DfE’s view that this reform is the way to inject new life into the existing modern foreign languages GCSE”.

Paul Whiteman, leader of the NAHT, said current plans for GCSE reform “could actually serve to decrease participation and enjoyment. DfE needs to pause and work with subject experts to review the proposals”.

And Katy Lewis, Edexcel’s head of languages, said the proposals “could benefit from additional time to review, to ensure they will achieve the aims that we are all working towards, and ultimately help more young people of learn a language”.



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  1. I wonder whether this idea was cooked up by the same influencer who wanted GCSE students to learn a huge number of formulae for GCSE Physics, even though they don’t need to do so for A level?