Responding to DfE’s latest statement about MFL reform

On 24th November, in an unprecedented move, nine major organisations (three exam boards, three subject associations and three headteachers’s organisations) joined forces to call on DfE to recognise the overwhelming consensus in the professional community that they need to rethink their plans to reform MFL GCSE. The problems with the proposals are legion, but principally relate to their narrow focus on a reductive and lop-sided word list, at the expense of communication and culture. You can see the full statement here.

The story was covered in TES and the Guardian. DfE eventually provided a response. TES covered it in their story here:

I just wanted to go through this statement with a fine-toothed comb, so here we go.

1. You cannot make a subject more “well-rounded” by reducing its content, in this case to a mere 1200 words for the average learner. In fact, the real figure, once you account for some of the technical aspects of that word list, is more like 1000 lemmas. That is an astonishingly small vocabulary for a language qualification. Middle-attaining students in German high schools (Realschule) learning French aim for more than double this.

2. You don’t make languages more “accessible” via an ill-conceived word list and a grammar-heavy curriculum. You make languages accessible by ensuring every pupil has sufficient classroom time for MFL and through a focus on communication & culture. Note that the more natural, communication-based elements of the current exam- such as the conversation task – will be removed, if the proposals are implemented, and replaced by dictations and read-aloud tasks.

If DfE really cared about the accessibility of MFL, then it would be taking a much more muscular stance on two issues: teacher supply and curriculum time. On the first issue, DfE still doesn’t provide training bursaries for MFL which are as generous as other shortage subjects. On the second issue of curriculum time, DfE is conspicuously silent. Curriculum time is the single most important variable when it comes to proficiency outcomes in language learning. No whizz-bang pedagogy or politically favourable grammar-led curriculum will ever make up for a time-poor curriculum. To learn a language, you need to learn words and you need time to practice them. DfE likes to pretend otherwise. Ofsted’s highly flawed and widely criticised MFL research review was also silent on this critical issue, reflecting the Inspectorate’s remarkably cosy relationship with the DfE curriculum team.

3. This brings me to my next point. DfE have given up pretending that its MFL proposals were based on proper research. They are now saying that the proposals are based on “Ofsted research”. Of course, Ofsted hasn’t done any research on this stuff. They did a so-called research report (see this link), but this of course was never peer reviewed, and chooses to gloss over all the research which doesn’t reflect current DfE thinking. I’ve also started exploring the research which is included in the review, and I’ve found some irregularities: for example, the research review asserted that Studies show that pupils’ self-efficacy consistently results in academic achievement more than other motivational factors. It also improves their language proficiencyStudies show that pupils’ self-efficacy consistently results in academic achievement more than other motivational factors. It also improves their language proficiency. Crucially, though, the references that Ofsted provides to back up this claim do not actually support this claim. No wonder the report was not peer reviewed. I wonder if the research community will review Ofsted’s work anyway? This is exactly what has been going on in the Maths community – and it makes v painful reading for Ofsted.

Ofsted itself seems to find it hard to follow the advice in its own research. The research – like the proposals – talks about how important it is to focus on so-called “high frequency words”. But in the model lesson given as an example by the Lead Inspector for MFL, nearly all the words used are … not high-frequency.

4. DfE asserts, in its response, that students benefit from learning “the building blocks of language […] vocabulary, phonics and grammar”. This is a bit like saying “students benefit from breathing air”. DfE seem to be trying to imply that teachers who reject their proposals somehow reject the idea that language learners should learn words and grammar. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you’re not learning words and grammar, you’re not learning a language. But the key issue is the balance of words, phonics and grammar, and how you then assess them after 5 years.

5. DfE finishes its response by saying “Our proposals aim to increase pupils’ motivation through this approach”. This is fine as an aim, but there is no evidence at all that they will achieve this aim. The approach espoused by these proposals – the NCELP approach – has indeed cost over £4.5m but of course has not been evaluated, and there is no data whatsoever on the motivational impact of this approach. So DfE’s statement here is not even conjecture or hypothesis, it is just hopelessly naive wishful thinking, as MFL teachers have now been saying for months.

What’s also very revealing about this final comment is that they describe their proposed GCSE exam as an “approach”. This makes it clearer than ever that DfE’s real aim here is not to change what the exam looks like – but to change how we teach languages.

What next?

I hope that DfE means what it says when it talks about “working with professional bodies”. Professional bodies have, of course, been excluded from the DfE’s thinking so far. The panel who designed these proposals was narrow and largely hand-picked. Input from professional bodies was absent. So it would be something of a euphemism to say that DfE might “continue” to work with those bodies, but if they would like to start to do so, that would indeed be very welcome, and serve to benefit language learners right across the country.

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