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How the exam boards cocked a snook at ALCAB

Readers of my blog may recall that I got unusually hot under the collar when ALCAB (the Russell Group led advisory panel on MFL A-levels, set up by Michael Gove) came up with their recommendations for the new A-levels.

My two main gripes were the idea of a literature/film essay in English and the nature of the subject topics they were recommending.

The essay in English was rejected by Ofqual and ALCAB after consultation, so students will now have to write in the target language. That is good, since teachers will be encouraged to make maximum use of the target language in the classroom and overall language proficiency will be enhanced at no great expense to "cognitive challenge".

As far as the topics are concerned, let me remind you of the French list of themes ALCAB had proposed in their "indicative list". Then have a look at what the exam boards came up with. How similar do you think these lists will be?

ALCAB indicative list
  • Republican values.
  • Schooling.
  • Provinces and regions.
  • Paris/Montreal/Marseilles.
  • Dom-Toms.
  • Les grands projets.
  • Secularism.
  • Freedom of expression.
  • The French revolution.
  • The French empire and decolonisation.
  • The Algerian war of independence.
  • The occupation.
  • The Dreyfus affair.
  • Right and left in politics.
  • The revival of antisemitism.
  • Surrealism.
  • The New Wave.
  • Existentialism.
  • Popular music.
  • Contemporary television.
  • Impressionist painting.
  • Négritude/créolité.
  • French mathematics (yes!).
  • Science and technology in contemporary France.

AQA's draft list
  • The changing nature of family.
  • The "cyber-society".
  • The place of voluntary work.
  • Positive features of a diverse society.
  • Life for the marginalised.
  • How criminals are treated.
  • A culture proud of its heritage.
  • Contemporary francophone music.
  • Cinema: the 7th art form.
  • Teenagers, the right to vote and political commitment.
  • Demonstrations, strikes - who holds the power?
  • Politics and immigration.
Eduqas list
  • Advantages of travelling, working and studying abroad.
  • Impact of travel on society (economic, social, physical and environmental).
  • Local culture and festivals in France and French-speaking countries and communities.
  • Migration and integration.
  • Cultural identity and marginalisation.
  • Cultural enrichment and celebrating difference.
  • Discrimination and diversity.
  • Entertainment, music and the arts . 
  • Media and digital culture.  
  • Youth sub-cultures, trends and personal identity. 
  • From June 1940 – May 1945 (occupation, liberation and end of World War II) .
  • Life in Occupied France and the cultural dimension (théâtre, cinéma, littérature) .
  • 1945-1950: rebuilding and restructuring. 
  • Repercussions for modern day France .

OCR list
  • Stereotypes, equality and gender -  the family (different structures and relationships); attitudes to marriage; gender identity; equality of opportunity; the roles of men and women; the effects of communication technology on human relationships.
  • Modern world issues - eating habits, genetically modified (GM) foods, vegetarianism, organic food and food production in target language countries and communities; obsessions and addictions; impacts of lifestyle on health, sport and fitness; technology. 
  • Law and order - types of crime, demographics of crime and punishment; cybercrime; crime prevention measures; punishments (prison, fines, alternatives to prison). 
  • Medical advances and related ethical issues - medical research; animal testing; genetic engineering; cosmetic surgery; the effect of extending life expectancy on demographics. 
  • Aspects of artistic culture - the popularity and significance of TV, film, theatre and music in the countries and communities where the language is spoken; music as an element of personal and national identity; the impact of digital technology in the world of the arts. 
  • Aspects of political culture - political systems; the impact of politics on the individual and society (education, housing, the environment, employment and migration); the role of the EU.

Pearson list
  • Les changements dans les structures familiales Les changements dans les attitudes envers le mariage, les couples et la famille. 
  • L’éducation Le système éducatif et les questions estudiantines. 
  • Le monde du travail La vie active en France et les attitudes envers le travail; le droit à la grève; l’égalité des sexes. 
  • La musique Les changements et les développements; l’impact de la musique sur la culture populaire. 
  • Les médias La liberté d’expression; la presse écrite et en ligne; l’impact sur la société et la politique. 
  • Les festivals et les traditions Les festivals, fêtes, coutumes et traditions. 
  • L’intégration et le multiculturalisme Les origines de l’immigration (à partir du 20ème siècle); l’évolution des stratégies politiques; les bienfaits at les défis de l’intégration et du multiculturalisme. 
  • La montée de l’extrême droite Les objectifs du Front national (FN); les leaders du FN; la montée du FN; l’opinion publique. 
  • L’Occupation La vie sous le régime de Vichy et l’autorité du Maréchal Pétain; La France occupée et la collaboration; l’antisémitisme. 
  • La Résistance La Résistance des Français, l’importance de Jean Moulin et Charles de Gaulle. 
Now, you will note that the exam boards appear to have looked at the ALCAB list and said "No, these won't work, let's see what we can come up with".

They were absolutely right. Their objection to the ALCAB list, as was mine, would have been that the proposed topics, although interesting in themselves, were not appropriate for A-level classes, largely because they would not generate communicative lessons. Would students actually want to talk about these topics?In fact, when I first looked at the ALCAB list and saw "French mathematics" I was bound to question whether ALCAB should be taken seriously at all.

Anyway, hopefully we are past that and Ofqual will give the green light to the exam boards' proposals, no doubt with some tweaking. I believe that what the exam boards have come up with does satisfy the DfE requirements in terms of cognitive challenge and relationship with the target language culture. The vast majority of the topics will allow for interesting, challenging lessons providing opportunities for oral communication. I would imagine the same goes for German and Spanish.

The fundamental error in the first place, in my view, was when Michael Gove essentially handed over the job of reviewing A-level to university academics, well-intentioned of course, but with little experience of A-level teaching in schools and colleges. The exam boards have exercised their skill and experience and it is to be hoped Ofqual share their vision.


  1. Having recently been on a course regarding the new A levels, I can confirm we were told that the thinking behind the English essay was for students to be able to come up with far more sophisticated ideas and language than they would otherwise be able to use in the TL for subjects that require a great deal of debate. So in essence, to be able to demonstrate the same skill sets required from other essay-based non-language A level courses. As far as the topics go, when the only representative is from a University that specialises in combining languages and politics, it is fair to assume that more politics are going to be added to the spec as this cuts down on competition for that university from others offering a different combination. A missed opportunity I think here as no actual A level teachers were asked to contribute to the consultative meeting.

  2. Thanks for commenting. The ALCAB panel did have some input from schools, but not much. The bias towards films a d literature reflects the preferences of uni departments. Is A-level mainly for preparing students for university? I don't think that should be the prime purpose as most A-level linguists do not go to do MFL at uni.


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