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How effective is the current MFL Curriculum? 

October 2017

At a time when the new GCSE examinations are being phased in, and when the Conservatives are planning to boost the number of grammar schools, to add to the already fragmented and confusing “choice” of schools for parents: state comprehensives, academies, faith schools, free schools and academies, not to mention private schools for those who can afford them - it would seem an opportune moment to reassess our secondary education in general, but specifically our teaching of languages, as we brace ourselves for a post-Brexit world.

Let us look firstly at the broader school curriculum. Until recently, the majority of schools had to follow the National Curriculum, which since its conception in 1988 has undergone several amendments and policy changes, following countless reviews and white papers, in an on-going attempt to engage young people with their secondary education. Have they succeeded? Many would argue not, and further would point out that part of the problem is surely caused by, or at least exacerbated by, this fractured nature of government policy, with no clear cohesion or consistency.

What counts as an educated 19-year-old in this day and age? The Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training back in 2009 argued for the following all-inclusive definition of education:

“knowledge and understanding…….; competence to make decisions about the future; practical capability – including preparation for employment ; moral seriousness ……; a sense of responsibility for the community”

Hmm! Not exactly a concise definition, but its lack of brevity goes some way to illustrate the complexity of the matter. As a society, we have a duty to educate our young people, both for themselves and for the community at large. However, there are many differing, conflicting views on what aspect(s) should carry more weight: the passing on of knowledge, as in the traditional subject-based curriculum, in order to improve the minds of young people, or the teaching of specific work-related skills to better equip them for their future careers. Of course, with languages, we could argue they sit comfortably in both categories: they are certainly rigorous academic subjects, training and developing the mind, but they can also be defined as skills-based, bestowing on pupils specific linguistic skills to carry out certain tasks. However, which one will prepare them best to become effective communicators and to prosper on the post-Brexit European and indeed global stage? How much time should be devoted to teaching the language at an intellectual level, enabling students to not only grasp the grammar but also be able to manipulate the language themselves, and how much to spoon-feeding authentic language by way of phrases and expressions, in order for pupils to mimic and absorb? Certainly, the new GCSE examination requires pupils to be able to manipulate the language to a much higher degree, but will those who struggle with this simply fall by the wayside?

There is also the debate about whether languages should be taught in a vacuum, as separate subjects, or whether they should they be taught in a cross-curricular way, interweaving and linking with other subjects like History, Geography, Art or Music. It is certainly true that languages, more than any other academic subject, give us a direct insight into other cultures, and through that prism we can glimpse a different view of the world. It also helps pupils to see language being used in a real context, rather than seen in insolation.

One reason for the popularity of this cross-curricular approach across the board is that it is perceived to be a move towards work-related activities or projects, and there is a generally-accepted assumption that education needs to be more skills-focused and geared towards future employment, in order to be relevant to our young people. But does it? It is of course vital to engage young people, as without that they will not learn, but is the only way to engage them by teaching them skills-based work knowledge? As they get older and begin to know which work direction they wish to go in, of course they will value and be motivated by the specific skills relevant to their chosen field of work, but should this not be grounded on an early foundation of knowledge which has broadened the mind? Without this are young people not simply trapped at the level of their own experience, condemned to recycle it, instead of surpassing it? And, in any case, in such a fast-changing world, are we really in a position to say today which skills are going to be required tomorrow?

The impact of league tables and the pressure on schools of maintaining or improving exam results year on year has led in recent years to a trend to condense the Key Stage 3 programme into two years, to allow more time for pupils to concentrate on their GCSEs. This trend is only going to get worse, as schools are now faced with preparing pupils for the new and tougher GCSE exams. Whilst I am in favour of a more rigorous exam structure, particularly for languages, where the outgoing exam laid itself wide open to abuse and rote learning without understanding, I am concerned that pupils’ “general” knowledge, made up of all compulsory subjects, will be limited to just two as opposed to three years. This means that at the age of 12/13 pupils will already have to choose the direction they wish their future career to take, a specialisation which becomes even narrower after their GCSEs, in stark contrast to the broader-based education favoured on the Continent. And where does that leave our debate about skills versus knowledge?

Surely we need a generation of young people with both skills and knowledge gained through a broad education, but above all I would argue, we need to engender in them the joy of learning for its own sake, which will allow them to aspire to be the best they can possibly be – let us not limit their horizons by forcing them down particular career paths too early, and let us not weigh them down with constant assessing. I so remember my shock as a recent graduate upon hearing a friend announce she’d wasted four years of her life because she hadn’t get a particular job she’d applied for. To me, education was so much more than that, and I suppose the fact that she’d emerged at the end of her course with that attitude sadly meant she had indeed wasted her time. Today of course it is that much harder to persuade young people of that joy of learning, when they’re faced with tuition fees and student loans. What a disservice we have done them! But here I digress. That is definitely another story, or should I say, another blog article waiting to happen. Any takers?


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