What do the GCSE reforms involve?
In January 2022, the Department for Education announced reforms to the French, German and Spanish GCSE courses. The reformed GCSEs will be first taught in 2024, with first exams taking place in 2026. The reforms involve students being assessed on 1,200 ‘word families’ at foundation tier, and 1,700 at higher tier. The subject content is no longer prescribed, but chosen by exam boards through themes which they select. A minimum of 85% of these ‘word families’ will be taken from the 2,000 most frequently used words in the target language.
Responses to the reforms
Participants in the Westminster Education Forum policy conference had mixed opinions on the new changes, reflecting the reactions in the press. The two most avid proponents of the reforms were a representative from Pearson Edexcel and a member of the University of York’s National Centre for Excellence in Language Pedagogy. On the other side, two secondary Heads of Languages and a Sheffield University professor opposed the changes.
Supporters of the reforms argued that the changes will help clarify the content learners need to know and reduce the gap between the vocabulary students learn and the vocabulary which appears in the exam. The Pearson Edexcel representative defended the research process behind the modifications, emphasising teacher feedback, a redesign and trials with students.
Opponents of the reforms reasoned that the changes represent a shift away from spontaneous communication and will not equip students to use the language unrehearsed, with one Head of Languages describing the changes as “chopping it [the language] up like a dead thing and trying to put it back together”. They also expressed concerns that the reforms would reduce uptake of MFL GCSEs, and highlighted the limitations of the new vocabulary structure. One noted that “if we want to engage all learners, we can’t afford to just teach to the exam”.
The benefits of MFL education
Despite educators’ doubts, the current changes were designed to increase the number of students choosing MFL GCSEs by making the subjects more accessible and appealing. The reforms are in line with the government’s goal of having 90% of pupils studying the EBacc subject combination at GCSE by 2025. The EBacc consists of five GCSE subjects considered essential to further study and future careers. Currently, low rates of MFL uptake is the main limiting factor for students taking the EBacc.
Throughout the Westminster Education Forum policy conference, participants highlighted the importance of MFL education, even though they were divided on whether the reforms would increase uptake. The UK lags behind other countries in teaching foreign languages, and is unusual in that MFL are both optional and are taught far later. The decline in MFL education is a barrier to trade and negatively impacts the UK’s competitiveness in the international market.
Conference participants placed strong emphasis on the value of MFL education for individual students. The OECD’s Director of Education and Skills, who opened the conference, started on a high note, discussing how MFL education helps students meet people from different backgrounds and value other cultures, as well as improve their cognitive flexibility. Students who learn a foreign language also tend to have higher educational ambitions, irrespective of their social background.
The benefits of MFL education go beyond soft skills and personal development. The UK is experiencing a ‘language deficit’, with only one in three people in the UK able to hold a conversation in a language other than English.
The 2021 LO-C 30 Report found that SMEs in the UK which embrace language capabilities are 30% more successful in exporting than those that don’t. The 2021 Cambridge & RAND Europe report found that investing in language learning in the UK is likely to have a return greater than the investment cost across the next ten to twenty years. As languages play a major role in international trade, the benefit-to-cost ratios are at least two to one for investing in Arabic, French, Mandarin, and Spanish education. The report suggests that the enhancement of MFL teaching practices and fund provision within schools could work to improve the UK’s GDP.
Why the UK needs to catch up to other countries
The UK’s comparative lack of second language capabilities limits both its international business capacities and the potential of its students. We have roughly half as many dual linguists as the EU, where 65% of people speak a second language.
Boosting the uptake of MFL GCSEs in the UK will only grow in importance with increasing globalisation, but whether the recent reforms will improve the situation is yet to be seen.
In part 2 of this series, we consider the future of MFL education with insights from the Westminster Education Forum policy conference.
- Ofsted’s research review, exploring effective practice in foreign language education
- This article signalling the importance of reforming education to change perceptions of MFL
- The British Council’s Language Trends 2022 report, which finds language learning in ‘slow recovery’
- 2021 LO-C 30 Report
- 2021 Cambridge & RAND Europe report.