'Language catastrophe' blamed for surge in top GCSE grades

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Aug 26 13:51:15 UTC 2005

>>From the Times on-line,

August 25, 2005

'Language catastrophe' blamed for surge in top GCSE grades
By Simon Freeman, Times Online

Teachers' leaders warned the Government today that the record rise in
pupils gaining the top grades at GCSE was the result of students
abandoning languages and other challenging subjects for softer options.
Overall GCSE pass rates among the 600,000 candidates were a shade up
overall, with the number of candidates achieving any grade from a G to A*
rising by 0.2 per cent from last year to 97.8 per cent.

The big improvement has been at the top end of the spectrum, with the
number of candidates awarded at least a C grade up by 2 per cent, to 61.2
per cent - the largest rise since 1992. The Government was urged today to
reverse its controversial policy of allowing pupils to drop modern
languages at 14 after a dramatic fall in the number of French and German
entries, down 14.4 per cent and 13.7 per cent respectively since last

The figures were even lower in the year-long language GCSE Short Courses,
where numbers dropped by 49.8 per cent in German and 42 per cent in
French. The collapse coincided with the first year of modern languages
being optional after the age of 14, a controversial government move which
came into force last September.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head
Teachers, condemned the decision: "The collapse in languages is a
catastrophe," he said. "The Government is going to have to reverse its
policy of allowing students to opt out at 14." Mr Hart said that although
the policy change was not implemented until September last year, it had
been pre-empted by many schools a year earlier, who opted to make
languages voluntary for students selecting subjects in 2003.

He added: "The results are excellent news for students and teachers, but
there are real concerns. It is obvious that students are understandably
playing the system by studying their stronger subjects outside the
compulsory core of English, maths and science. "The entry patterns for
science and modern foreign languages make this abundantly clear. "We are
in danger of reaching a position where league tables and Ofsted are
driving the system in a way which is not in the interests of the students
nor in the interests of this country."

Ellie Johnson Searle, director of the exams watchdog the Joint Council for
Qualifications, said tht the decline in French, German and Spanish at GCSE
was "much to be regretted". She said: "Less able candidates are
increasingly less likely to take these subjects, as demonstrated by a
significant rise at the higher grades at the same time as a decline in
grades D to G." But a DfES spokeswoman defended the Government's language
reforms. She said: "We need to be realistic about what will make language
learning flourish in our schools. Forcing 14-16 year olds to learn a
language wont achieve that. What we need to do, and what we are doing, is
getting children involved in learning languages at a much younger age.

"That's why we are investing 115m over the next three years to ensure by
2010 every child aged 7-11 will be able to learn one or more languages as
part of their curriculum. Having a large number of children keen on
languages - as starting early will deliver - is what will make the
difference. Already over 40 per cent of primary schools offer language
learning, compared to 20 per cent in 2001." Physical education once again
saw the biggest increase in entries, up 7.5 per cent from 134,134 in 2004
to 144,194 this year.

Jacqui Smith, the Schools Ministers, said the results were a clear
reflection of the Government's efforts to drive up achievement in tthe
core subjects of English and maths, the "bedrock of every child's
education." The A*-C maths pass rate increased by 1.7 per cent from 51.7
per cent to 53.4 per cent - the biggest rise for five years - and the
English pass rate was up from 59.9 per cent to 60.9 per cent.

Praising the efforts of students and teachers, Ms Smith said: "Young
people need a firm foundation in the basics - no matter what their choices
are at GCSE - to ensure they have the skills needed to progress and
succeed in further learning, employment and life - and that means English
and maths." Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) figures showed 272,140
entries for French in 2005 compared with 318,095 in 2004. There were just
105,288 exam entries in German this year, compared with 122,023 last year

John Dunford, general secretary of Secondary Heads Association, said
things were likely to get worse because todays figures represented the
last batch of candidates for whom taking a languages was compulsory. He
said: "These figures, from a year before modern languages became voluntary
for 14 and 15-year-olds, are very bad news, not least for the future of
this country as a trading nation. Next year will be even lower.  I think
the figures are in free fall. We are losing a generation of linguists." Mr
Hart also criticised the weighting given to grades from work-related GNVQ
courses, which are worth four GCSEs.

Experts have warned that less bright pupils are encouraged to take this
GNVQ route - often in subjects such as Information and Communication
Technology (ICT) - in order to boost their schools league table ranking.
Entries for vocational courses in what are known as Applied GCSEs - which
are worth two GCSEs in subjects including construction and hospitality -
were up by nearly 40,000 this year. And entries for the work-related
Intermediate GNVQ courses were up by more than 4,000 to about 105,000. Of
more than 100,000 GNVQ entries last year, 54.2 per cent were in ICT.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the University of Buckinghams Centre
for Education and Employment Research, said: "Schools are bailing out of
GCSEs and getting into this GNVQ, which Ofsted inspectors have said is
softer in terms of the amount of time and effort it takes. "We may be
raising scores but the numbers are failing us in terms of what we are
providing as an education."

The Institute of Directors said that many children left school without
basic skills of reading and writing and argued that employers were crying
out for an improvement among applicants. Richard Wilson, IoD leader, said:
"The starting point for employers recruiting staff is surely to have
access to candidates with basic literacy and numeracy skills. We are not
there yet." A DfES spokesperson said: "GNVQs have existed in the
performance tables in their current from since 1997. They represent a very
limited percentage of the over all A to C grades.

"The fact is that these qualifications - which have helped many young
people - are now coming to the end of their use in schools as we develop
newer qualifications. We can debate the relevant worth of qualifications
all day, what we do is take the advice of the experts - QCA. "Of course
how useful a particular qualification is, is linked to what young people
want to do in terms of their employment and continued education. But what
we do see as key to everything is English and maths, that's why future
performance tables will be much more focused around performance in English
and Maths - the bedrock of the education system."

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