Blame exam chiefs for drop in languages, says top headmaster Tim Hands

In an interview with Greg Hurst at the Times, 24/08/13, HMC's incoming Chairman, and Master of Magdalen College School, Dr Tim Hands, argues that the awarding bodies are themselves to blame for exams in which it was harder to get an A* and dull courses at GCSE.

Plans for an inquiry by exams boards into the collapse in popularity of foreign languages at A level have been attacked by a leading headmaster.

Tim Hands, Master of Magdalen College School, in Oxford, said that the awarding bodies were themselves to blame for exams in which it was harder to get an A* and dull courses at GCSE.

The boards announced a six-month study after the numbers of teenagers studying A levels in French and German slumped by 10 and 11 per cent respectively.

However Dr Hands, the incoming chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, said that schools and university academics should be consulted first.

“The wrong people are conducting the inquiry. The problem is in the exam boards and can be sorted by them but, given they haven’t sorted it so far, they don’t seem to be the best people to progress it,” Dr Hands said.

“The problem is the nature of the menu that they offer and then, as it were, the price list: what you actually get back in the different subjects. The A*s offered in languages are smaller than in the majority of other subjects and then there is a great variation between the languages. Given that it is your grade that gets you into university, if those subjects are going to continue being not so useful in getting you in then you won’t do them.”

Ofqual, the exams regulator, has also highlighted concerns over the low numbers of A* grades in foreign-language A levels. It said that relatively few A* grades were awarded in comparison with subjects where candidates achieved higher numbers of As, and said that awards of A* and A grades varies sharply between years.

This year 7.6 per cent of candidates were awarded A*s in all A-level subjects and 18.7 per cent were awarded As.

In French only 6.5 per cent achieved A*s, although 32 per cent achieved As. In German 8.2 per cent were awarded A*s while 33.2 per cent were given A grades. Only 4,242 A-level candidates sat German and 11,272 took French.

This week’s GCSE results showed a dramatic rise in the number of 16-year-olds studying French, Spanish and, to a lesser extent, German, which ministers hope will feed through to more A-level entries in two years’ time.

A spokesman for the German Embassy in London said: “We are really happy about numbers coming through at GCSE. We hope in two years’ time that will show across and go through to A level.”

However Dr Hands said that GCSE courses were too dull and deterred teenagers from studying languages. GCSEs use a topic-based approach that makes teenagers learn how to discuss their pets, name kitchen utensils, order an ice cream, book a youth hostel or buy train tickets, which many pupils find boring, he said.

Plans for redesigned GCSEs in modern languages have been delayed for a year and will not be introduced until 2016, a year after the first batch of reformed GCSEs.

Linguists say that years of decline has hit the study of languages at universities. The University of Salford is to close almost all its language courses and other universities are scaling back some degree programmes. They also predict a future shortage of translators, interpreters and language teachers.

Jurga Zilinskiene, from the Association of Translation Companies, said: “The increase in numbers studying languages at GCSE is obviously to be welcomed. However, there is a huge gap between GCSE and A level when it comes to the depth of the syllabus.

“This means that many going on to A level drop languages after year one simply from the shock of how much harder it is.”

By Greg Hurst, The Times. Click here to read the article © The Times.