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How did we end up with some good A-level specifications?

When the government decided it wanted to reform A-levels, they set up a committee called ALCAB, largely made up of Russell Group university academics. ALCAB looked at the existing specifications and recorded a number of perceived weaknesses.

Firstly, they noted that there was too much inconsistency between schools in terms of the challenge offered by the cultural topics being studied. For example, was it right that some schools taught a relatively shallow film whilst others were teaching lengthy, serious novels? This meant the assessment was not as robust as it should be.

Secondly, they were concerned that not enough language study was being conducted in the context of the target language culture. The panel was concerned that too many of their undergraduates were arriving at university with inadequate knowledge of the culture of their language of study.

Thirdly, they claimed that the current A-levels did not present enough if a cognitive challenge, leaving them devalued when compared with some other A-levels. In particular, they were worried that they did not produce students with a thorough enough command of grammar.

Finally, ALCAB believed that a renewed A-level could attract more students to the subject, including students who may have had the perception that languages were simply not as interesting as subjects like physics, history and English literature.

In short, ALCAB felt that A-level was not a good enough preparation for higher education. Let us not forget that the DfE had already stated that the main aim of A-level was to produce university-ready students.

ALCAB's response to their perceived inadequacies and their recipe for improving A-level involved a number of recommendations: beefing up the grammatical element, having prescribed lists of books and films (thus devaluing other areas beyond film and literature), introducing a independent research project and insisting that cultural content be both firmly embedded in the specifications and assessed.

As far as the latter point is concerned, ALCAB proposed that the film and literature be assessed by essays in English. This, they felt, would ensure a greater level of cognitive challenge. After consultation this was thankfully rejected since it would have led to less teaching in the target language.

Furthermore, to ensure the syllabus was challenging, ALCAB produced an "indicative list" of topics rooted in the culture of the language of study. These included topics such as French impressionism, the new wave of French cinema, the Spanish Civil War and French mathematics. It contained interesting elements, but too many were inappropriate as a basis for designing communicative lessons; so much so that the exam boards were initially alarmed by how off-putting some of the topics would be to students, especially at a time of falling entries.

Using their experience and by eliciting teachers' views, the exam boards set about producing specifications which were in line with the DfE/ALCAB subject guidance. They avoided topics which they felt would be too dry and unteachable, used the best of the (quite popular with teachers) existing specifications and, in conjunction with publishers, have come up with what are looking like good text books. So far, two specifications, those from Pearson and AQA, have been accredited.

The new specifications represent an evolution, not a revolution. They also represent a return to previous practice, for example, the research project looks a lot like what we used to call coursework and there is nothing new about prescribed lists of works. The nature of the challenge to students is somewhat different, with a greater emphasis placed on translation at AS-level, summary work, personal research and essay writing on film and literature in exam conditions. It is also true that actual knowledge of the target language culture in general will play a slightly greater role in lessons - look out for more texts featuring factual information and history, for example.

In the end, after initial dismay and alarm, the exam boards have made the new A-levels more than palatable. Will they make languages more attractive to students as ALCAB hoped? No. This would have involved quite a different type of reform, one which would have viewed A-level as a stimulating course in its own right, not one designed as a preparation for that minority who carry on with languages at university. We remain very stuck in our ways.







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