Friday, September 24, 2004

Addition by Subtraction

Another regurgitated article. Regurgitated articles are fun.

The current crop of British 14-year-olds, soon to embark on the beginning of their GCSE courses, will be the first not to have to take a compulsory examination in a foreign language. The Times today thinks that this will drastically reduce the balance of the core subjects for examination, and further still be a detriment to the country in the international marketplace. This, of course, is something that can only be observed over a longer distance (although it should be noted that the markets mentioned by The Times as particularly problematic if English is the only spoken language are not markets whose language is taught at GCSE). However, I think that the derision at the decision of the government to lessen language requirements is actually misplaced.I should emphasise that I am in no way a "little Englander". I travel around Europe regularly, believe that the xenophobic attitude of most Britons is worrying, and wandering around Prague on a recent trip, I was hugely embarrassed by the ignorant actions of many Britons who travelled there mainly for the cheap booze. Furthermore, I took German and French to A-Level and greatly enjoy the challenge of mastering a different language; I hate travelling to countries where I can't speak the language, as I think it is rude as a guest to absolutely depend upon the host to be able to get around. Yet I believe that one of the reasons that numbers participating in language courses beyond 16 are so poor is because of the GCSE language exam itself.

Now, many of the criticisms I am about to make probably point towards a deeper malaise in the school system and make a persuasive case for a wholesale reform. Languages, however, are an extreme case of the broader themes that will emerge in my argument and deserve further examination. Languages at GCSE level are not in the slightest bit demanding for the top candidates. Whereas at 16 a large number of European counterparts will be able to hold conversation on a wide number of themes in English (the Germans being particularly strong at this), the requirements for passing GCSE don't greatly help a wide-ranging conversation. Certainly a C-grade pass at GCSE is obtainable by people who are not really able to speak the language at all, and would probably struggle if ever placed in the "role play" speaking situations in real life. At the A* level, the examination is not really that demanding for good linguists. It provides little challenges, and it is possible for a candidate to coast through the exam - when actually at that age they are capable of significantly more. But those at the bottom end really find languages difficult and a struggle. Their time would be much better spent by focusing on the subjects remaining within the core curriculum and actually achieving grades worth something.

If, by dropping the mandatory requirement to study a language past 14, the teachers at any given school are actually able to stretch their top-class candidates by significant teaching away from the direct examination syllabus, then I think the government have (incredibly) done the education system a service. I remain convinced that it is the lack of incentive to do well in the GCSE exam, and its largely undemanding nature, that deters students from taking it to a further level - especially as the result is that the step up from GCSE to A Level is the largest of any subject, with even A grade students finding A Level a struggle. Of course, this could be extrapolated across any number of the core subjects (and probably further). The major weakness of the comprehensive system is that no amount of streaming in any subject can guarantee classes of a more or less similar ability - which is absolutely essential in a subject like languages where getting left behind at an early stage almost completely prevents future progress. If the argument is extended across subjects, it suggests that by placing students in a "one-size-fits-all" system, it doesn't help those at the bottom, who need more help, and it doesn't sufficiently stretch those at the top to discover where their real interests and aptitudes lie.

This is particularly the case in languages. Far better to try and get people focusing on subjects they can either handle or excel at, and actually try and get the best people taking languages. Because in an international marketplace, GCSE languages mean nothing. Certainly someone who has only studied a language to 16 will not be capable of business dealings. Yet if we actually get people truly interested and stretched by the subject, a level of fluency by 18, and if not then, certainly by 21/22, is by no means a ridiculous goal. As strange as it may seem, if less people take GCSE languages, we might actually get more top-class candidates.