Saturday, September 16, 2006

Knee-Jerk Reactions

One of the stories that I haven't yet commented on is the usual kerfuffle over exam results that kicks off every August. Journalists must love that month - any who aren't already on holiday simply dust down their laptops and dig out the story they wrote last year. Change a few names, maybe replace a quote or two, and they've got a story ready to go.

Two of the most frequent complaints predictably drew comments from the Tories. The first is that all children should be made to do a language at GCSE - this year's cohort being the first that did not have such a requirement. The second is that coursework is a "soft option" that invariably leads to grade inflation. Both statements, to my mind, are completely wrong-headed. I'll deal with one today, and come back to the other tomorrow.

Firstly, the idea that all children should learn a language. I speak here as someone who took French and German at A-Level, and I feel embarrassed whenever I travel to a country where I am unable to speak the language. As far as I am concerned, the more students who learn languages, the better. It should be a source of national shame that at many schools in Wales, A-Level Welsh is a more popular option than French or German. We cannot break down a "little Englander" mentality unless we have the ability to converse more effectively with our neighbours. Human contact is the best way of breaking down artificial barriers; without an ability at languages is one of the best ways of facilitating this.

But if politicians really think that a language GCSE is the best vehicle for achieving this, they ought to think again. In percentage terms, it is one of the easiest GCSEs in which to achieve top grades, and yet the amount of language knowledge needed is, to all intents and purposes, trivial. You could order drinks in a cafe, talk briefly about your hobbies, and be able to buy a rail ticket (or fix a flat tyre!), but in terms of striking up a conversation with a passing German, then it's not especially useful. And most certainly not if people are only passing at grade C.

A far more important study would be one that showed the proportion of those getting good grades across the board without taking a language. The argument of the Tories holds up for high academic achievers. But, in many ways, a language is a luxury, not an essential skill for most jobs in this country. At the same time, no-one can doubt the fact that Maths and English are essential.

Yet there are children up and down the country who struggle to make the grade at these core subjects - far more vital to our country's future, I'd contend, than learning a language. Why should we waste valuable teaching time on skills that will be little used and little valued in the future, when subjects that are vitally important don't receive enough attention?

Additionally, aren't we just forcing kids to tilt at windmills when they have to grapple with the structures of a strange language when, in many cases, they can't understand their own?

Of course, what this highlights is the dangers of a one-size-fits-all system. The attention and teaching required by those who struggle to make the 5 A*-C benchmark is totally different to that required by high-fliers who will achieve a string of top grades. So suggesting that everyone should take a language GCSE totally misses the point. We should be equipping people with a top-class education. But it is often said that the best is the enemy of the good, and so it proves here.

In an ideal world, every school-leaver would be fluent in a foreign language. That, however, is an unrealistic goal, albeit one that sounds nice. What we have to do is prioritise in the education system. For some children, that means introducing them to as wide a range of subjects as possible. For others, that means concentrating damned hard on a small number of subjects, making sure they're equipped with the core skills they need. But a nuanced approach doesn't get headlines - after all, the journalists only want a quote they can trot out from year to year.

A knee-jerk reaction doesn't create a sound education policy. There are good reasons why many students should be learning a language. But there are equally good reasons as to why many students shouldn't. We're not going to get the world-class education system we need in Britain until politicians of all shades are prepared to look beyond the headlines.