Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

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.


English 

_____. 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 _____ …

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…

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for frenchteacher.net three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from pixabay.com to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:





Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…