The British Academy urges further reflection on modern language GCSE reforms and a focus on cultural learning

18 May 2021

As consultations on reforms to GCSE qualifications in modern foreign languages (MFL) close tomorrow (19 May), the British Academy calls for further reflection and a renewed focus on cultural learning to widen the appeal of the discipline.

Last week the Academy supported a statement by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages calling for the Department for Education's review to be paused to allow additional evidence and expertise to be considered.

The proposals under consultation would see a revised GCSE focus on vocabulary lists drawn from the 2000 most frequently used words in each language. However, the evidence on language acquisition is contested on this approach, while there are concerns that these plans would reduce the subject content so that it excludes integral aspects of language learning, such as the cultural context in which a language is spoken, that should be taught at this level.

As part of the consultations by the Department for Education and Ofqual, the British Academy, supported by several education organisations, has put forward a parallel proposal to ensure that meaningful cultural learning takes place, and is assessed, in modern language GCSEs. It calls for a pause to explore different models, such as that of a portfolio of cultural learning resources, including short texts, videos or films, podcasts and recordings ranging from journalism and literature, to documentaries and entertainment.

Explaining the proposal, Professor Neil Kenny FBA, Lead Fellow for Languages at the British Academy, said: 

“From primary school to secondary education and higher education, learning about cultures through their languages is a fundamental part of acquiring and appreciating modern languages. It is vital for children to have these experiences, which are often building blocks for confidence, cultural curiosity, empathy and subsequent opportunities for mobility, education, creativity, employment and personal connections.

“In its current iteration, the modern languages GCSE fosters cultural learning via overarching themes. While they ensure culture context, they can have drawbacks. On the other hand, the proposals under consultation respond to those drawbacks by reducing the content to prescribed vocabulary and grammar. The effect of this would be to treat cultural learning as an optional extra – especially for Foundation Tier and lower-ability learners, but also for many Higher Tier learners – since marks would be awarded for vocabulary, phonics, and grammar alone, and no cultural content would be specified. As a result, the cultural component would tend to be taught more to socio-economically advantaged learners.

“If cultural learning is not baked into the GCSE, then the qualification’s appeal will remain narrow, and it will be harder to increase uptake. We therefore propose that DfE takes the opportunity provided by the GCSE content review to convene a working group to ensure that meaningful cultural learning is an integral part of modern languages GCSEs, at levels that are accessible for all learners.”

Contact the press office

For further information contact the Press Office on press@thebritishacademy.ac.uk  / 020 7969 5273 / 07500 010 432.

Sign up to our email newsletters