Exam Boards intending to drop some languages 

But if they are so important to the government shouldn’t they subsidise them ?

A brief Commons debate this week (24 March) reminded us that a number of exam bodies have decided to pull out of teaching GCSE and A-Level for what is termed ‘lesser-taught’ modern languages.

It seems that from 2016 or 2017 we will lose a large number lesser-known languages. These include Arabic, modern Greek, Japanese, Urdu, Bengali, modern Hebrew, Punjabi, Polish, Dutch, Persian, Gujarati and Turkish. The decision by exam bodies has been made on the grounds of low uptake and/or financial viability

A report by the CBI published in 2014 found that 65% of businesses say they value foreign language skills, most importantly for building relations with overseas customers and overseas suppliers.

Minister Nick Gibb confirmed that “some exam boards have announced their intention to discontinue their qualifications in some languages. Those decisions appear to have been driven more by short-term commercial interests than by a robust analysis of the language skills our economy will clearly require in the future.”

We have a particularly poor record in this country when it comes to learning the main foreign languages, let alone ‘the lesser known languages’. The Government through its Ebacc and other  measures has sought to address the challenge of protecting the main modern languages, but this measure doesn’t much help the lesser ones.   Language learning is facing a ‘difficult climate’ in schools as take up at GCSE and A-Level remain low, according to a recent  report from the CfBT Education Trust and the British Council,  while attracting enough pupils to study a language post-16 is seen as the ‘most widespread challenge’ for language teachers’.

Its an interesting point made by Gibb about the skills requirements of the economy but since when have exam boards been responsible for analysing the language skills our economy will require in the future? They react to demand, and incentives, and are currently not incentivised to protect  these lesser taught languages .You can provide incentives either through the accountability framework or through financial rewards.

Exam boards have to make decisions that are commercially sound. Take Turkish, an example used by Gibb. Turkish GCSE attracted only 1,403 entries last year, and for the Turkish A-level there were only 354 entries. How does it make commercial sense to continue with these qualifications? Polish was mentioned several times in this debate. In 2013/14, the number of pupils at the end of Key Stage 4 attempting GCSE Polish was 3,321. In 2013/14,  700 students were entered for an A-level examination in Polish.

Gibb has promised to raise the issue with the Heads of  the exam boards and invite them “to consider their positions “and ,rather grandly,  added ,with all the gravitas he could muster ,that he wanted  the  boards “ to subordinate what I believe to be a commercial calculation to the far more significant long-term economic and cultural considerations for this country.” The latter is his job. And if he and the government think it so important they should provide the incentives rather than insist that the exam boards take a hit.

Gibb, at an early  point in the debate,  suggested that “compensation” (ie some form of subsidy) might be an option .   suggesting he  would address this issue  later  on in the debate ,but then never did.



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