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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?


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