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What went wrong with Asset Languages?

In the news recently has been the fact that OCR, who run the Asset Languages scheme (part of what was at one time called the languages ladder), have decided to cut down on the number of languages it offers. The Asset Languages courses will be scaled back to just French, German, Spanish, Italian and Mandarin, with the cutbacks hitting less popular languages, including community languages.

This is the current list of languages offered:  Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, Cornish, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Panjabi, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil, Turkish, Urdu, Welsh and Yoruba.

Helen Ward, writing in the TES, records the following entry figures for some of the languages in 2012:
  • 13,887 French
  • 6,940 Spanish
  • 241 Arabic
  • 24 Turkish
  • 13 Greek
These figures are not very high and suggest that the whole languages ladder idea has not really caught on. Let's recall that it was originally set up to allow students and adults to make progress with languages in the same way they might with a musical instrument. Just as a youngster works through the grades at piano, so they would with a language. The availability of a clear and transparent set of grades would increase interest and take-up.

Some schools, primaries and secondaries, including my former school for a while, have made use of the lower levels so that those studying a language for a short time can get a recognised qualification. But I would imagine that entries for the higher levels never got going at all. The original plan was for students to be able to move right up to beyond advanced level to mastery, but I see from the Asset web site that this is no longer the case.

One problem has been that there is no syllabus for Asset, just an examination, so teachers who are used to very specific lists of topics, grammar and vocabulary have been put off. They fear the unknown. Another issue has no doubt been the cost of entries and the bureaucracy involved in doing teacher assessment. But the main problem has been that the government has not recognised Asset as an equivalent to GCSE in league tables and the awareness among the general public has been minimal.

It's a shame. I was involved with Asset, writing intermediate papers whilst OCR, drawing on the experience of Cambridge Assessment, I believe, were very professional. Questions went through a detailed editing process and were pre-tested (not something that happens with GCSE questions). On the other hand, not to offer a detailed syllabus for every language was a mistake.

Fundamentally, there has been a political failure. This is a classic case of a decent idea not properly followed through and now OCR are shrinking it for financial reasons. If it doesn't pay, don't do it. Sound familiar?


Update: October 8th 2013. OCR announced that Asset Languages is no more.


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