The British Academy responds to GCSE modern foreign languages reforms

18 Jan 2022

The British Academy has responded to Ofqual and the Department for Education’s plans for reforming GCSE qualifications in French, German and Spanish.

From 2024, teaching of the revised GCSEs in England will focus on vocabulary lists drawn largely from the 2,000 most frequently occurring words in each language. However, the evidence for relying to this extent on that approach to language acquisition is limited and contested. There are concerns that the extent of the emphasis on vocabulary lists, grammar, and phonics will sideline fundamental aspects of the discipline of modern languages, such as communication and intercultural learning.

In response to the plans, Professor Neil Kenny FBA, Lead Fellow for Languages at the British Academy, said:

“The desire of the Department for Education and Ofqual to reform these GCSEs created a welcome opportunity to improve the learning of languages and to achieve a much-needed increase in uptake. However, it looks like that opportunity has been missed. The initial proposals caused widespread concern, with headteachers and all the leading language associations (in both the secondary and the university sectors) joining us in calling for substantive modifications to ensure that language-learning is as engaging and meaningful as it should be. There was a view that failing to do so would narrow the kinds of learning done in these GCSEs, making them dry, mechanical, and less appealing to a wide range of learners who have different learning styles. Unfortunately, the modifications since then have been limited and will do little to allay those concerns.

“One of the reasons why reform was needed was to make the intercultural learning more engaging. But the constraints of the new subject content will in fact make it more difficult for publishers and teachers to develop stimulating cultural materials. Nonetheless, during the consultation it became apparent that there is a widespread readiness in the university modern languages sector to contribute, alongside secondary specialists, to sourcing and developing such materials. We hope that offer will be taken up. We also hope that the new content will be kept under careful review as it is developed and tested, and that it will be modified according to feedback from learners, teachers, and other stakeholders.

“In the meantime, the British Academy will continue to make the case for the strategic, cultural, and social importance of language learning, and to monitor uptake of the subjects at all levels.”

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