Exams & Boards: which ones work?

Our school is, in many respects, the county’s only true comprehensive; in an area with such a widespread system of selection, most high-schools only draw from a catchment that has already had the highest achieving students ‘creamed off’.

This, however, is not a rant about selective education (I happen to be somewhat of a fan – unsurprising considering my own background). But teaching as I do in a school which draws from a neigbouring county with no selective education, I am confronted with the problem that my job is to engage and enthuse students of all ability ranges, and, hopefully, encourage them to continue studying a language for GCSE (in our school, languages are not compulsory). Once again, no ranting to be found – of course that’s my job.

The rub is that, with such a relatively low uptake at GCSE (one of my middle-set KS3 classes had an uptake rate of 25%) we are unable to stream students at GCSE level. The result is a class of hugely mixed ability (87% projected A*-C, but with students ranging from A* to E grades) which are all forced to sit a GCSE course.

Two questions therefore present themselves:

1/ is it fair to make all students who have a passion to study languages sit a GCSE course, as opposed to alternative qualification pathways?

2/ which GCSE course should we have them follow?

Please feel free to post your own thoughts on these questions.

GCSEs vs NVQs

When I was at school, NVQs were reasonably new, and risibly labelled as Not Very Qualifieds. My friends and I were, admittedly, a tad precocious and had been well fed on the idea that we belonged to the top 25% of society by our teachers. This condescending view of NVQs definitely marked me and, until recently, had even endured into the first years of my teaching career. This is, happily, no longer the case.

The problem with GCSEs is that the centralised syllabus forces teachers to cover topics that have little relevance to pupils’ lives or interests. What’s more, the new(ish) assessment set-up requires excessive amounts of the use of a range of complex language structures that would probably not be used all together in real life. How, then, can teachers offer qualifications that are both relevant and manageable for lower ability students?

The answer appears to be the NVQ. The advantages of the NVQ are that:

  • students can simultaneously enter different skills for different levels (eg: Speaking Level 2, Listening Level 3),
  • language study can be linked to a relevant area of vocational study,
  • assessment for each level can be undertaken & evidenced whenever the student is ready.

GCSE vs iGCSE           

I will not, I know, be the only teacher with an underlying couche of rage bubbling away whenever I see the Edexcel logo. This rage is perhaps a little ungenerous, since I teach and actually quite like their A Level French syllabus (despite some interesting marking weightings). But the fiasco surrounding the controlled coursework modules of their ‘new’ MFL GCSE has left a very bitter taste in many a teacher’s mouth.

The new controlled assessments, designed to replace the previous controlled and non-controlled coursework tasks, are as flawed as their predecessors; they take up huge amounts of time to administer; they evaluate unrealistic assessment criteria, simultaneously requiring students to use every single structure they have ever learnt; most schools’ Key Stage structures will mean that students have to sit a number of these assessments before they have completed a full programme of study. How is it fair to expect a student to sit a controlled assessment when they haven’t learnt everything they would need to be able to achieve the top marks?

Conversly, the Cambridge iGCSE, until now largely the province of Independent Schools, assesses students in each of the four core skills at the end of their course of study. Each assessment is designed to test listening, reading, speaking and writing skills of different levels and the positivie marking system rewards students for correctly used language.

Whilst I still have to decide whether it is worth persuading my department to switch to both NVQs and the iGCSE, this issue has certainly given me something to think about. If anybody else has experience working with either qualification in languages, their contribution to the debate would certainly be welcome!

What do you think?

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The School’s Network: Languages Subject Conference 2011

Last week, I took part in this year’s Languages Subject Conference held at Warwick University by The School’s Network (formerly The Specialist School’s and Academies Trust). With keynote speeches by Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, and more notably ALL’s Steven Fawkes, the conference was both informative and thought provoking.

Vocabulary Learning in the 21st Century

Lead by Rachel Hawkes from Comberton Village College, this session introduced some excellent ideas for teaching vocabulary in MFL. Her main points are summarised below. More information can be found on Rachel’s website at www.rachelhawkes.com.

  • Use of contextualised gap-fill worksheets, to teach vocabulary in a real context,
  • Use of a ‘core language’ sheet of around 100 words, along with the VocabMan,
  • Letting students choose their own vocabulary, relevant to them,
  • Using music to enable students to better remember words and phrases,
  • Using online programmes, including Quizlet and Vocab Express,

Sticky Grammar: making grammar teaching really work for all pupils

James Stubbs’ presentation on teaching grammar in sequences through the medium of the target language was slightly more controversial among the attendees. His method relied on working backwards from a model sentence or text and leading students to notice grammar rules themselves. His teaching was very energetic and enthusiastic, but questions remained as to whether a low-abilty group would have been able to keep up and remain engaged. From a teacher’s point-of view, I also think this session would have been more useful if James had presented a range of strategies that can be used in the classroom, rather than presenting just one lesson sequence. More details on his work can be found at www.jamesstubbslanguages.co.uk.

Ashfield ICE, bucking the trend in languages

Language College Coordinator at Ashfield School in Notts, Kim Brown, delivered a very interesting presentation on how she has been able to ‘buck the trend’ in low uptake figures for KS4 MFL and increase the profile of language study in a comprehensive school with a very broad catchment. She should be commended for her work in tying in Language NVQs with vocational study, her excellent links with international schools and her inspired cross-curricular work, most notably the LinguaVision competition. The school’s language college website is www.ashfield.notts.sch.uk/languagecollege.htm.