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Urgent action needed to save MFL from ‘extinction’, claims expert

Alix Robertson
August 24, 2017

GCSE entries to modern foreign languages continued to fall this year, in a dropoff that could even see some subjects becoming “extinct” in schools, according to one expert.

Overall, MFL entries were down by 7.3 per cent this year at around 300,000 in total, while the drop in the population of 16-year-olds in England sat at 2.62 per cent.

Entries for French GCSE in England fell by nine per cent from 134,420 to 121,095 this year, while entries in German were down 12.5 per cent from 47,756 to 41,762.

For Spanish, entries fell from 87,136 to 85,184 or by two per cent.

Numbers were also down for other foreign languages compared with 2016, including Gujarati, Polish and Russian.

Suzanne O’Farrell, a curriculum and assessment specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders and a former headteacher and head of languages, told Schools Week that “something radically needs to be done” to prevent modern foreign languages from becoming “extinct in schools”.

A problem with “severe grading” of MFL subjects, she said, has existed in the system since 2006.

“We think there is a reasonable expectation to compare outcomes for pupils across EBacc subjects,” she said.

“So a child whom you would expect to get a B in history would get a B in French.

“But what’s been happening is that they are at least half a grade, or in some cases a grade, lower in MFL subjects, according to Ofqual’s own data, compared to other subjects.”

O’Farrell said that schools looking to fill the EBacc bucket of Progress 8 are turning to other subjects such as history, geography, science or computing rather than languages, because “they know they are going to be more severely graded”.

Targets mean that, in future, schools will be expected to enter at least 75 per cent of pupils into languages, which forms part of the EBacc headline measure.

“Coupled with the declining numbers of entries at A-level we’re finding now that you haven’t got the pipeline coming through of teachers into the profession and so shortages of teachers is an issue as well,” O’Farrell added.

In March 2016, Schools Week reported that nearly 3,500 extra language teachers would be needed to meet the government’s desire to include modern foreign languages in the EBacc, an almost 40 per cent increase on the number first decided by data experts.

Meanwhile, O’Farrell said, the numbers of dual linguists are also “really, really down”.

“The opportunity, because of the curriculum narrowing, to do two languages is rare in schools,” she added.

She believes that severe grading in MFL subjects is “the first thing to tackle”, to bring entry numbers back up.

“Then we need to look at teacher recruitment and incentives across the country for people doing languages,” she said “It’s in a very fragile state.”

“Ofqual are beginning to recognise that they need to engage with stakeholder communities and we welcome the fact that they are ready to listen to evidence.”

She said that an inter-subject comparability conference held by Ofqual in February last year had been a start to address to problem – but insisted that much more needs to be done.

“HMRC, ASCL, and the Association of Language Learning are all committed now to engaging with Ofqual and saying we really need to sort this out,” she said.

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  • Julie Nicholls says:

    It is not surprising to me,the way languages are taught is so uninspiring and done completely the wrong way. Focussing on correct grammar just discourages children from learning. What they want to do is be able to understand and talk as a 3 year old would even if the grammar is incorrect they can communicate, grammar comes much later. Also if they started languages at age 3it would not be an issue, they would absorb it just as they do maths and English.

  • I think a system like they used to do with science would be good. Those who were really good at science and who did all three did exams of a difficulty where they were awarded three single GCSEs, many people did all three to a level whereby they gained two GCSEs out of it double science) and still some people did can easier version of all three and gained one gcse from it. Other people did just biology, just physics or just chemistry. The same could've done for French, German or Spanish. Even the least able could get one MFL GCSE from being to order food, ask directions, buy things in a shop and generally be friendly and polite in these three languages, even if their command of grammar is pretty poor. Others could do a slightly harder level to get double languages and still others (a real minority probably but I would have loved this opportunity) could really excel and gain three GCSEs. Just a thought ...