Opinion: Answers on no more than 2 sides of A4 (part 2)

In my earlier article, I looked at the new proposals for dealing with school exclusions set out in The Importance of Teaching schools White Paper, published by the government last month. Two other areas of concern in Paper, which otherwise contains some good ideas, relates to the curriculum changes and the measurement of schools’ performance.

Curriculum – the broad academic core

The White Paper gives some welcome attention to the breadth of the curriculum students study. Although the freedoms proposed for schools elsewhere in the paper allow them to adopt their own route, it is proposed to encourage the uptake of GCSEs in sciences, languages and humanities by awarding an ‘English Baccalaureate’ to any student who achieves good passes in English, mathematics, the sciences, a modern or ancient foreign language and a humanity such as history or geography. (Though why they don’t just go the whole hog and adopt the Tomlinson proposals will have to be the subject of an article another day).

The devil is in the detail, however! In an addendum to the published White Paper, the government set out which subjects will be allowable for inclusion in the EB. There will be many arguments about which subjects should be included, but I want to draw attention to the languages problem.

In the list, the only non-European languages included are Biblical Hebrew and Hindi, and the only European languages are Welsh, Classical Greek, Latin and French!

Further clarifications from the DfE have indicated that Spanish, German and possibly Urdu might join the list, but that could be it. What about Italian, Russian, Mandarin, Portuguese, Arabic, Tamil, Vietnamese, Pashto, Yorubu, Ibo, Hausa, Swahili, Persian and many others?

All these languages and more are spoken in families and schools around the country – in secondary school where I’m a governor, where white British students comprise only half the roll, over thirty languages are in common use. These are modern languages in use in the world, and for many of them GCSEs are available, so why are they not included in the EB lists?

Given our country’s international outlook, we should be encouraging students to learn Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish and Urdu. A few more Pashto speakers would have been handy in Afghanistan, and engaging with our Commonwealth colleagues would be a lot easier if we spoke some of their languages!

It’s true that GCSEs in these languages are often taken by native or second language speakers as an ‘easy’ qualification. Schools encourage them to do so, partly because progress in it can give a boost to those students’ confidence in their other subjects.

If it is academic rigour which is the concern, however, then we should seek to bar all native or second-language speakers from taking qualifications in their languages, and not just speakers of non-European languages. To do otherwise starts to look just a little like discrimination.

Alex Feakes is a Liberal Democrat councillor in Forest Hill, southeast London and a governor of a girls’ community secondary school. He blogs at www.alexfeakes.org and is on twitter.

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  • Malcolm Todd 30th Dec '10 - 3:05pm

    Looks like “Grammar” Gove’s personal imprint again: the purpose of the EB being to more easily identifiable proper swots who were wisely advised to take ‘proper’ subjects — the ones Father remembers taking in his day. Mind you, some of the distinctions look frankly weird: why Hindi, and not German?

  • In view of the Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment to “introduce an Education Freedom Act banning politicians from getting involved in the day-to-day running of schools” (Lib Dem Manifesto p.37), I am surprised that you are not worried about the significant expansion of the power of the Secretary of State. The White Paper not only includes the intention to: ‘use the powers in the Academies Act to require conversion’ to academies of schools which are underperforming (regardless of the views of governors, staff, pupils, parents, the Local Authority or the community) but also includes the intention to ‘legislate to extend the Secretary of State’s closure powers to schools subject to a notice to improve’.

    I cannot think of greater political interference than changing the relationship between a school and its community (including removing parental representation from the governance of the school – as academies do) or closing the school!

  • I think that the White Paper kind of missed the end-point of its own argument. To my mind, the problems are not at A-Level (not to say that A-Levels are without flaw, but they are over-maligned) but at GCSE. A-Levels were never intended to be school-leavers certificates, GCSEs were. In reality, we have seen GCSEs explode – there is no reason for pupils to be doing so many – and exams done for the sake of it.

    Increasing the school age to 18 would make A-Level the school-leavers certificate it has de facto become, and we should now start to recognise and treat A-Level as such. The IB is one option, though it is not the panacea some think it is.

    A really radical move would be to have 14-18 education, rather than 14-16 then 16-18.

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