Skip to main content

Michael Gove's plan for A-levels

Michael Gove has proposed that universities, or rather a selected group of 24 universities, the Russell Group, have a much greater say in the content of A-levels. This is principally a reaction to a perception in universities that A-level students are insufficiently prepared for degree courses. The belief has also been expressed that A-levels have become too easy or predictable, that too many students re-take modules and that there has been significant grade inflation over the years, making the exam seem less of a "gold standard". The plan is to initially review the content of maths, science and English courses. If these are toughened up, the process could then work back down to GCSE and to primary level. In this way standards will rise, so the argument goes, and we shall rise up the esteemed PISA tables once more.

As far as modern languages goes, the history is interesting. Back in the 1950s, when A-levels were introduced, they were effectively a means of preparing a relatively small elite of students for university. A-level French papers in that era, and into the sixties and seventies, consisted of material which would have been very familiar on undergraduate courses - translations to and from French, essays on literary set texts (you studied four novels or similar over two years) and general essays. Listening comprehension was paid lip service to and became a serious option when the technology allowed it. There was also a set-piece oral exam, at least by the early seventies.

In effect, A-level content was led by universities and, one might argue, it stifled teaching in sixth forms. It was too biased towards literature and translation and did not encourage communication. It was a throwback to the teaching of Latin. In the 1970s the trend began to reverse. Modern methods stemming from behaviourism and audio-lingualism, encouraging greater oral communication (exemplified by the widely used course Actualités Françaises), led teachers down a different path. Some universities were influenced by these new trends in language teaching and adapted their own courses to bring them up to date. Forward-looking institutions moved away from the intensive study of literature and history and included far more language-based, more culturally diverse courses.

At this stage it looked like schools were setting the agenda as traditional universities were stuck in their ways.

What about now? Students taking languages these days are not so different from those of the past. They tend to be more academic than most, especially as languages are seen as a tough option, but they also want to study other things beyond literature. Most will not go on to do French degrees, though quite a few will study a language alongside other disciplines. A-level has to take into account this variety of needs. A-levels are not just a preparation for university, they are valuable stand alone courses. It is not certain that the needs of Russell Group universities are the same as those of A-levels students.

For languages, my guess is that we won't see any revolutionary changes. Our students are already trained in writing essays and generally have good communication skills (they are usually girls).  Politicians are far more interested in tinkering with subjects like maths, science, English and history (maybe because they think they know something about them).

What we have now may not be perfect, but A-level French is challenging enough and allows some freedom for teachers to adapt their work to their classes. We do a sensible balance of linguistic and cultural elements. I hope we don't return to prescribed Racine, Balzac and Maupassant. If we make the exams harder than they already are we will just put off even more potential linguists.


  1. 'They also want to study other things beyond literature'. Quite right. One of the PGCE delegates at ALL Language World said exactly that about his degree course. I think we should be in an era of mutual respect between educational sectors and institutions and HEIs should be discussing with teachers what content/ themes their students would enjoy; the HEIs can then approach that at a level they consider appropriate.

  2. Yes. At the moment I am not aware of much diacussion between universities and schools. Our school has a link with Leeds University, but none of our meetings has mentioned syllabus content. I don't think they are that interested in what we do and I cannot claim that we follow what they do either. Odd, isn't it?


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

Three AQA A-level courses compared

I've put together my three reviews of worthy A-level courses which you might be considering for next September. They are all very useful courses, but with significant differences. The traditional Hodder and OUP book-based courses differ in that the former comes in one chunky two year book, whilst OUP's comes in two parts, the first for AS or the first year of an A-level course. The Attitudes16 course by Steve Glover and Nathalie Kaddouri is based on an online platform from which you would download worksheets and share a logon with studenst who would do the interactive parts (Textivate and video work). The two text books are supported by interactive material (Kerboodle) or an e-text book.


An excellent resource which should be competing for your attention at the moment is the Attitudes16 course which writers Steve Glover and Nathalie Kaddouri have been working on for some time. You can find it here at, along with his excellent resources for film and li…

Learning strategies (3)

This is the third in the mini-series of blogs about learning strategies. So far, we have looked at some (rather scant) research evidence for the effectiveness of strategies. Bear in mind that a lack of research evidence does not mean strategies do not work; if there is any consensus, it is that they are probably useful and probably best used when integrated into a normal teaching sequence. We then looked at a classification of different types of strategies.

In this blog Gianfanco and I look at how you might integrate strategies into your teaching. There is nothing revolutionary about this stuff! You may do a good deal of this type of thing already, but you may also be new to the concepts and applications of learning strategies.

Let's look at how you might use strategies, particularly with regard to the teaching of listening and reading. Remember: this is just about how you help students to use strategies to become better listeners and readers.

How to teach strategies 

The research …