Skip to main content

Michael Gove's legacy to languages

Mr Whippy van - image: wikimedia commons
Since I wrote this post I have now had the chance to see the draft content of the new A-levels for teaching from September 2016. It is alarming to see how retrograde the new content is and, in particular, the huge influence of the university sector in its formulation. Please see my more recent blog posts. Gove left us with more than I had thought.


You can usually tell when politicians have inspired a degree of hatred: they are referred to by their surname only. Just think of Thatcher and Blair, as opposed to Major, Callaghan, Wilson, Heath or even Brown. Most teachers would have liked party poppers and champagne to hand on hearing the surpise announcement that Gove's tenure at the DfE has come to an end. For an Education Secretary he had a long run.  I cannot recall such a despised, ideological minister, but has his influence been felt to a large degree by language teachers?

It is true that Gove has wanted to raise the status of languages. He once said: "Learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do to broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children". I am sure he meant it. He obviously rated languages as seriously academic too.

But have his policy changes brought about significant improvements in the status and teaching of languages?

Firstly, with regard to primary languages, after pulling the plug on money from 2010, damaging networks which had been built up over a few years under Labour, he did eventually allow for the introduction of compulsory languages at KS2. The hiatus was very harmful, however, and there is very little money now available for the training of teachers at KS2 (the DfE are claiming that £350 000 is there for training at KS2 and above). The principle of compulsory languages at KS2 is easy to justify, but we shall inevitably end up with a patchwork quilt of coverage across schools, with little chance of rigorous and consistent progression between primary and secondary. It's simply too complex to get right everywhere. I doubt if this policy change will be revolutionary.

What a shame that Gove pulled the plug on funding for the Asset Languages scheme, originally known as the languages ladder. Many schools used these qualifications and with some more political follow-through the scheme may have acquired a similar status to RSA-style music exams. This was only one of several initiatives allowed to wither. Think of CILT, Teacher's TV and the Teacher Resource Exchange.

At secondary level the Ebacc accountability measure was a neat trick to encourage school leaders to raise the status of languages and humanities. It did arrest the rapid fall in GCSE entries for MFL and has led to an increase of students doing AS level in 2013-14, but the introduction of the P8 measure will devalue the Ebacc, so the number of 15/16 year olds doing languages is unlikely to rise much further. Gove would have been braver to stick to his principle of a rigorous academic education to all pupils up to 16 by making languages compulsory. This proved a bridge too far and reveals that, ultimately, maths, English and science are considered more important.

The decoupling of AS levels from A-level, if it happens, is likely to lead to a further fall in the number of students taking MFL in Y12. Nothing else has yet been done to arrest the disastrous decline in A-level MFL entries for French and German. A courageous move would have been to get universities, or at least some of them, to make a GCSE pass in MFL a requirement for entry. That would instantly raise the status of MFL at KS4. The UCML letter to universities on this is to be welcomed as is the All-Party Parliamentary Group Report on Modern Languages which recognises the serious "national deficit in languages".

Changes to the National Curriculum set in train under Gove's watch are relatively minor at KS3 and KS4, but he has managed to get Ofqual to include more references to translation and literature. I imagine the intention is to make language teaching a little less communicative and a bit more based on traditional attention to grammar and accuracy. I regret this change in emphasis, but in any case, since only half of English secondarry schools have to follow the National Curriculum, you wonder why we have one at all. In practice, the National Curriculum gives a strong lead to Ofqual and the exam boards who will set the standards. Teachers will teach to the new specifications as they always have done. I hope these and their associated specimen papers do no more than pay lip service to translation. I would not expect much of a revolution in exam papers, but they will need to be very smart in the setting of writing questions.

As far as GCSE is concerned, many teachers will be glad to see the back of controlled assessments, but will be concerned about the exact nature of terminal exams to come. I am glad Gove ditched CAs. If you want to have a robust exam and accountability system, you cannot rely on teachers applying the rules consistently. In addition, CAs have been a serious disruption to schemes of work and forced teachers to employ dubious pedagogical practices, notably large amounts of rote learning to maximise marks.

The removal of levels will affect all subjects, possibly in quite subtle ways. In languages, along with other subjects, it may remove the undesirable practice of setting tasks to hit a level artificially. It may encourage teachers to focus a bit more on pig fattening than pig weighing.  This was clearly the intention. Gove was responding to what some teachers were saying about levels. It remains to be seen whether schools can devise effective, less time-consuming assessment and tracking procedures.

Overall it is hard not to conclude that Gove's period in office has had a minimal effect on the status of languages in England. University departments continue to close, A-level numbers continue to fall and GCSE entries have pretty much stalled. Meanwhile reports periodically emerge that our lack of linguists is holding back the nation. I have the feeling that, unless the OECD start to report modern language learning in their PISA report, languages will remain in the doldrums. Sorry!


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…

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…

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)

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…

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
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. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…