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"One size fits all" policies

I'd like to offer you three examples of where "one size fits all" education policies have a deleterious effect on the practice of modern language teaching.

The first is school timetables.

There was a time when most schools designed their timetable around periods of about 40 minutes, using double periods for practical subjects and games/PE. Later many state schools moved to a 25 period week with each period lasting one hour. This was in part, I feel sure, because of the popularity of the three part lesson (now largely discredited). In an attempt to raise levels in literacy and mathematics it was felt by the educational establishment that teachers should teach lessons based on a starter, main course and plenary. Model lessons were designed for primary teachers to ensure that even inexperienced or less effective teachers would be able to deliver a successful lesson.

Secondary schools latched on to this, and for this reason and others, many schools opted for one hour lessons. This did language teaching a great deal of harm, as it is generally well attested that the "little and often" principle works well in modern language teaching. In many secondary schools these days students get only two contacts a week for MFL, sometimes less, and this makes it hard for pupils of all abilities to retain language and to build up a momentum.

My second example is the system of controlled assessments designed for GCSE in England and Wales.

When it was decided that all subjects should have a 60% component of controlled assessment, MFL was pretty well obliged to allocate 60% of marks to speaking and writing, at the expense of listening and reading. Now, there are all sorts of issues with controlled assessments involving rote learning and reliability of the assessment, but more than this, we have had to downgrade what is arguably the most important skill in language acquisition, listening, and give greater weight to the least important, writing. This has undoubtedly distorted teaching.

Lastly, let me mention modules at AS and A2 level. These were designed with certain subjects in mind and there is no doubt that maths and science results have risen over the last few years partly because of the modular system. Modules have come under fire even in these subjects since it is claimed that they produce students with less overall understanding of the subjects. In MFL they make no sense, since a student's competence gradually build up over time and the sensible moment to assess is at the end of the course. The result of the policy is that a good deal of time and money is wasted on students re-taking AS modules in the upper sixth year.

What can we learn from this? "One size fits all" appeals to our sense of order. There is elegance in simplicity. But elegance does not equal efficacy. Modern language students and teachers have been ill served by reforms designed for higher status subjects. Future reforms should anticipate more skilfully the consequences ensuing from them. Timetabling and assessment need to be more flexible and cater for the needs of all subject areas.


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