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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.

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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!

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