Skip to main content

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?


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

Preparing for GCSE speaking: building a repertoire

As your Y11 classes start their final year of GCSE, one potential danger of moving from Controlled Assessment to terminal assessment of speaking is to believe that in this new regime there will be little place for the rote learning or memorisation of language. While it is true that the amount of learning by heart is likely to go down and that greater use of unrehearsed (spontaneous) should be encouraged, there are undoubtedly some good techniques to help your pupils perform well on the day.

I clearly recall, when I marked speaking tests for AQA 15-20 years ago, that schools whose candidates performed the best were often those who had prepared their students with ready-made short paragraphs of language. Candidates who didn't sound particularly like "natural linguists" (e.g. displaying poor accents) nevertheless got high marks. As far as an examiner is concerned is doesn't matter if every single candidate says that last weekend they went to the cinema, saw a James Bond…

Worried about the new GCSEs?

Twitter and MFL Facebook groups are replete with posts expressing concerns about the new GCSEs and, in particular, the difficulty of the exam, grades and tiers. I can only comment from a distance since I am no longer in the classroom, but I have been through a number of sea changes in assessment over the years so may have something useful to say.

Firstly, as far as general difficulty of papers is concerned, I think it’s fair to say that the new assessment is harder (not necessarily in terms of grades though). This is particularly evident in the writing tasks and speaking test. Although it will still be possible to work in some memorised material in these parts of the exam, there is no doubt that weaker candidates will have more problems coping with the greater requirement for unrehearsed language. Past experience working with average to very able students tells me some, even those with reasonable attainment, will flounder on the written questions in the heat of the moment. Others will…

GCSE and IGCSE revision links 2018

It's coming up to that time of year again. In England and Wales. Here is a handy list of some good interactive revision links for this level. These links are also good for intermediate exams in Scotland, Ireland and other English-speaking countries. You could copy and paste this to print off for students.

Don't forget the GCSE revision material on of course! How could you?

As far as apps for students are concerned, I would suggest the Cramit one, Memrise and Learn French which is pretty good for vocabulary. For Android devices try the Learn French Vocabulary Free. For listening, you could suggest Coffee Break French from Radio Lingua Network (iTunes podcasts).

Listening (Foundation/Higher) (Foundation/Higher) (Foundation/Higher)