Thursday, August 25, 2005

GCSE Languages Decline

Last year I wrote that if, in making GCSE languages non-compulsory, teachers and examiners actually start stretching the brightest pupils more, then a great service to the learning of languages in Britain would have been achieved.

This year was the first year that languages weren't compulsory at GCSE level; unsurprisingly, the number of entries trailed off quite sharply. The detail of the argument highlights the loopholes in the government's enacted policy quite well, but again the overall thread of the argument is that only by everyone learning a language will standards improve. That's not right. GCSE languages are already pretty vacuous, and the gap between GCSE and A-Level is a chasm for all but the brightest candidates. For once, I have to agree with a spokesperson from the Department of Education when they say:

"We need to be realistic about what will make language learning flourish in our schools.

"Forcing 14 to16-year-olds to learn a language won't achieve that. What we need to do, and what we are doing, is getting children involved in learning languages at a much younger age."

The principle of the change is underlined by the fact that the percentage pass rates in languages have shot up this year - by 7 percentage points in both German and French. The weakest candidates are abandoning the exam. Without wishing to sound elitist, this isn't a bad thing. They should be spending more time on English and Maths - the really vital skills - rather than learning a foreign language they will barely use to a woefully inadequate standard at any rate. The danger only comes if the best students start giving languages up. The candidate figures at A-Level are worryingly low. But if we don't stretch the brightest candidates early, and really show them the fun of learning a language, then they're not going to take it up at a more advanced stage. 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.