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JCQ report on low take-up at A-level and the A* grade issue

The JCQ is "a membership organisation comprising the seven largest providers of qualifications in the UK".

They have just released a report to look at the reasons for low and declining take-up of modern languages at A-level and the reasons for the relative lack of A* grades. Its chapters, produced by different people or agencies e.g. Ipsos Mori, contain a very thorough analysis of recent trends in languages, both at GCSE and A-Level, including, for example, the issue of "severe grading" as well as the key issue of why there has beena decline in take-up. There some very useful recommendations. I thoroughly recommend this report if you are interested in policy or qualifications.

Here is a concise summary of their findings as summarised by the AQA site:
  • students' motivations for choosing, or not choosing, to study a Modern Foreign Language (MFL) at A-level are wide ranging and include a perception of difficulty
  • some teachers feel the jump between GCSE and A-level is too great and can act as a deterrent
  • learning languages requires the ability to develop across a wide range of skills which all need to be mastered to achieve an A*
  • writing and speaking tasks are most likely to test stretch and challenge students and so a relatively weak performance in writing skill is a key factor in a student not achieving an A*.
From my own perspective as a long-standing (now retired) Head of MFL, a few points did occur to me on reading this. I have previously blogged about the take-up issue here.

The first bullet point above is very relevant. Motivations for not choosing a language at A-Level do vary a lot. I would mention that weaker students are more likley to choose other options, the number of which has risen over the years. Subjects such as psychology, media, religious studies and biology have grown hugely in the last twenty years. This has been at the expense of languages and other subjects (geography has seen a decline, though history has not). MFL IS perceived as hard and severe grading does not help.

The second point has been true ever since GCSE was introduced in 1987. AS level has evolved into more of a transitional qualification (subject content resembles that of GCSE in many ways), but students with grade B or C at GCSE find A-level tough. The proposed new A-Levels to be taught from September 2016 will do little or nothing to change this perception. Indeed, quite possibly the opposite will be true.

The third and fourth points relate to consistency across skills and in particular a weakness in writing. I must confess that I find this analysis odd. It would be a mere mathematical operation to raise the rate of A* grades to match that achieved in subjects like maths and science. It seems to me that the error was made when the A* grade was introduced and that it has not been put right. I taught some thoroughly excellent students who failed to achieve A*. I was left to conclude that Ofqual had got the sums wrong and that some of the A* grades may have gone to bilingual candidates, which would skew the results.

If you look into the detail of the chapters in the report some interesting points emerge with regard to low take-up.
  • Apparently students are still unaware of the economic benefits to them of learning a language. This is not the case for STEM subjects. In addition students are not sure what career paths they may follow with a language
  • 92% of students surveyed by MORI said they thought MFL was perceived as hard
  • 83% of teachers thought students considered you need a special talent for learning languages to gain proficiency
  • Controlled assessments at GCSE were thought by teachers to have a negative effect on attainment later
  • Students think the jump from GCSE to A-Level is greater than for other subjects. In particular they think you can get marks at GCSE by rote memory and that AS level demands more sophisticated skills
  • Most teachers thought that future reforms of A-level would have no impact, or a negative impact on take-up
  • Teachers felt decoupling of AS level from A-level may reduce take-up
  • Teachers felt A-level should take into account a wider range of ability levels
  • With regard to the A* issue "A* outcomes are often lower than those predicted from the students’ prior attainment scores, a phenomenon that cannot be changed using the current awarding process, even if it was deemed appropriate to do so". Put simply, the current mathematical arrangements (raw scores to UMS) cannot be changed!
NOW, the punchline:

IPSOS concluded that there were four major factors behind the decline in take-up of MFL at A-level:

1.  A-Level (and GCSE) is not focused enough on speaking and topics are not interesting enough. An academic focus on writing and assessments is off-putting. (Take note, Russell Group.) The balance of skills and content should be more engaging.

2. GCSE puts off students from continuing to A-level. It is too based on memory work Teachers feel that teaching to the test limits the possibility of producing inspiring lessons.

3.  MFL is a risky choice for A-level. Students think they work harder to achieve lower grades than in other subjects. they think it is virtually impossible to get a top grade (A*). A review of grading would be useful.

4.  Students do not appreciate the value of MFL qualifications. They are unaware of career options with languages. They note that STEM has been promoted to them more heaviliy. More work to promote languages is needed.

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