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Should all pupils do MFL at GCSE?

With the government's confirmation of their manifesto commitment to make the Ebacc compulsory for all pupils, it may be time to return to the thorny question of whether all children in England should do a language at GCSE up to 16.

I'm going to try and clarify the issue in my own mind by doing a pros and cons list, then give you my own opinion for what it's worth. Do let me know on Twitter or here if I have missed any key points.

In favour

1. Making a subject compulsory raises its status and may therefore make it seem more important to pupils. In the long run MFL may achieve the status French and Latin once had in the academic curriculum.

2. Making MFL compulsory will hugely increase the second language skill levels of children across the nation, even if these skills are relatively limited.

3. A larger crop of GCSE pupils may result in a larger number of students continuing with a language to a higher level. This may, to an extent, address the national skills shortage in languages.

4. Compulsory MFL would mean more pupils would have the opportunity to broaden their minds to another culture and hence see their own in a different light. They may become better people. Not to make languages compulsory is to do students a disservice.

5. Doing a language should be viewed as part of an all-round education for any 16 year-old.

6. This is an equal opportunities issue. We should not see languages as only suitable for some children (who are, as it happens, often the more middle class ones).


1. Because we live in an English-speaking nation we should not see compulsion in the same way as other countries do. English is, for many young people, enough. Skills shortages can be addressed by importing linguists.

2. Many pupils find languages really hard and may be wasting their time struggling with a second language when they could be doing something more fulfilling for them.

3. We had compulsion before and it did not work. Thousands of pupils were "disapplied" from exams i.e. they were allowed to drop MFL or were put on a "European studies"- style course.

4. We do not have enough good, qualified language teachers to make the policy work. Where will they come from in the future?

5. Compulsion ends up just being force-feeding of reluctant and struggling pupils who cause problems and even play truant. This has a knock-on effect for the culture if a school. Children are different and should not all be given the same diet after 14.

6. GCSE MFL is not suitable for a significant minority of pupils. If there were an alternative compulsion may be worth considering more positively.

7. Schools cannot make enough time available on the timetable to make a success of compulsory MFL.


I suspect many language teachers like the idea of compulsion. We tend to think language learning is undervalued in the UK and that compulsion would raise the status of our subject area. It is also true that it would be desirable for our nation to have better skills and a more open attitude to other cultures.

The reality may be, however, that because we are British and anglophone, we shall never convince many children that language learning is worthwhile beyond a certain level. The French have a similar problem given that their language and culture still has some value beyond their borders. Compulsion there does not lead to notably high achievement.

The sad reality was, in the few years up to 2004 when MFL was compulsory, it did not go well in many classrooms. It is said that Estelle Morris, Minister of Education at the time, reluctantly agreed to reduce the status of MFL to an "entitlement" because it would reduce truancy. Given the serious teacher supply problems too, it seems unlikely to me that compulsion will go much better this time.

Maybe the DfE would have us believe that primary languages and a higher level of challenge at KS3 and KS4 will produce more competent and motivated linguists. I doubt very much that this will be the case.

I would like to see more pupils doing a language to 16, but I do not think compulsion is the best route. I do think also that there need to be alternatives to GCSE which may be more motivating and relevant to some pupils.

In the long run the solution to the skill shortage in languages may lie in a broadening of choice after 16. The A-level regime is absurdly narrow and forces thousands of motivated linguists to drop languages in favour of other subjects, notably STEM. I have also written previously that if universities made GCSE MFL an entry requirement for any course then you would see motivation at KS4 rise.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. The theory is fine but we have had significant behaviour issues since introducing compulsion two years ago. More and more average to less able/motivated learners have been compelled to take a language. With increasing intervention required, more disruption to lessons and increasingly unrealistic targets, half my (excellent) department have left this year . We have had massive problems replacing them and now have an NQT and two struggling agency staff (and we were lucky to get them!). It's going to be mayhem and even this idiotic government is going to have to backtrack.

  2. I sympathise. My own feeling is that the age of 14 is late enough to set students on different routes for their own benefit.

  3. I wonder if there might be mileage in the idea of GCSE short courses also being counted as part of the compulsory requirement. Then we could still focus on oral literacy in the MFL but remove for those who struggle with it the reading/written component. Allowing this would mean that our young people could still develop their communication skills but with the removal of the written/read element except for those who are keen to pursue their language learning to a deeper level. Of using on the communicative aspect would also allow teachers to inject highly relevant and motivating content to try and engage the disenfranchised students.

  4. Hi Rosie. That sounds like a good idea. The DfE have already acknowledged that only about 90% of students will eventually do the Ebacc subjects.The slight toughening up of GCSE will not help matters for the less able.


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