Easier exams will only worsen our poor record on foreign languages

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As it is, accompanying a UK visitor to any university or other organisation on the Continent is a shaming experience. Most organisations there take it for granted that a goodly proportion of their staff should be able to carry on a conversation in English; most UK visitors, by contrast, will not even make the effort to speak the local language in the bar afterwards.

In the seventeenth century James I was famously christened by wits the “wisest fool in Christendom”. These days, if you are seeking foolishness combined with cleverness, life is rather easier. You need look no further than British academia. A case in point is a solemn letter in last week’s Guardian from 150 university teachers of modern languages, including several Oxbridge professors, complaining that GCSEs and A-levels in the subject are … much too difficult.

Too difficult, in a decade when the British are some of the worst foreign language speakers in the world, and numerous language students arrive in respectable universities with good results but no idea about what the subjunctive is? Absolutely. The problem, according to our top intellectuals, is that the efforts of the government and Ofqual to halt the dumbing-down of public exams have been all too successful. In comparison with other subjects, marks given in modern languages are now an average half-grade lower than elsewhere. Indeed, horror of horrors, A-levels sometimes even expect knowledge of matters that first-year university students haven’t been taught about for years. This will not do at all. Modern languages must be brought firmly back into line with other disciplines; and to do this it is imperative artificially to raise the grades given. Otherwise, the argument runs, pupils will be put off taking the subjects at all. Schools, the letter stated, had already reported that the perception of languages as “difficult” was the reason behind the drop in numbers studying them. And, it went on, “Where’s the incentive to choose a language if you’re systematically made to feel rubbish at it?”

It’s not hard to see why this communication is crassly silly. The object of public examinations is to tell employers, educators and the rest of us in a reliable way how good people are at whatever it is that is being examined. It may well be more difficult to gain proficiency in some subjects than others; if so, so be it. By contrast, the object of the exercise is not to provide some kind of equitable distribution of rewards according to merit, nor yet to pander to students’ self-esteem. There is precious little sense in the idea that our educators’ function should consist in inveigling as many pupils as possible into buying into a given subject, as if conducting some scholastic Dutch auction relating to how little you need to know in order to get good grades.

But this Guardian letter, like many of its kind, is even more interesting for what it tells us about the people behind it. For instance, take one of the writers, who when contacted for a quote said that making students work too hard discourages them and “impacts negatively on every aspect of their learning experience”. This throwaway line is highly informative. Finding out about a subject may incidentally provide an enlightening and possibly gratifying experience; indeed, for many good pupils it does. But the suggestion by this writer is apparently that an undemanding “learning experience” should be almost a primary aim. Schools it seems should be tasked with making learning as painless as possible, persuading pupils to sign up to a particular subject in much the same way as advertisers persuade people to buy their washing-machine because it is more labour-saving than the others. It is not difficult to see that this is putting the cart before the horse. Schools, and for that matter examinations bodies, exist to inculcate knowledge and competence, not some exciting “experience” such as one might expect from a film or a night out clubbing. Or at least they ought to.

This isn’t all. Elsewhere in the letter we are told that the result of tightening up on the marking of GCSEs and A-levels is that a student’s grade “may well end up lower than their performance deserves”. Deserves according to what criterion? It can’t be familiarity with French, German or Spanish; there is no God-given rule that a given level of linguistic ability must uniquely correspond to a Grade 6 or C. It can’t refer to equity across the years (it’s unfair that last year’s Grade 7s now get 6s), unless the writers seriously think that if marking standards change this must always be downwards. The most plausible explanation is a vague belief that somehow examination marks should be tied to effort or personal merit; but this itself is a curious attitude. Some might have thought, in their unenlightened way, that GCSEs and A-levels were there to measure knowledge rather than deservingness, and that it was therefore no more wrong to give low marks to someone who through no fault of his own from misfortune found a paper difficult than it would be to give high ones to someone who sailed through it because of some unusual knack he happened to possess. No matter: the professors clearly know better.

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Scratch the surface, however, and we could get closer to what might well be the real motivation. Here is a university teacher and supporter of the letter, interviewed in the Guardian about the affair. “GCSE modern foreign language entries,” she says, “tend to be highest in independent, selective schools and converter academies, and lowest in schools in more challenging economic circumstances and those with lower levels of attainment overall.” “Low uptake of languages,” she carries on, “is especially acute among those from more economically disadvantaged backgrounds or those with special educational needs.” In other words, this isn’t primarily about intellectual standards at all. What really matters is that GCSEs and A-levels should be regarded as instruments of social justice; and what gets these educators’ goat is that independent and selective schools and converter academies (you can almost hear the words being spat out) seem to be able to take the new tough examinations in their stride. The reason standards should be lowered is that, as all enlightened educators know, any such solution, even if it produces better linguists, is simply unacceptable.

What now? As readers may have noted already, there are other ways apart from a wholesale falsification of grades to deal with the problems raised by these earnest educators. If it’s such a bad thing that GCSEs and A-levels are more difficult in some subjects than others, leading to pupils voting with their feet, you don’t have to make the difficult ones easier. You can just as straightforwardly get Ofqual to complete its mission by making the easy ones more difficult. The playing-field would then be just as level; and there would be the additional advantage that if someone really can’t hack languages, whether it’s their fault or not, their marks will come closer to making this clear to the rest of us. Again, if A-levels sometimes turn out more demanding than university first-year courses, this is an anomaly: but it doesn’t take an Einstein to realise that you could just as easily remove it by bumping up standards in universities.

These might even be quite good ideas. As a nation we certainly need linguists; but we need to be sure that the ones we are turning out are genuinely good ones. As it is, accompanying a UK visitor to any university or other organisation on the Continent is a shaming experience. Most organisations there take it for granted that a goodly proportion of their staff should be able to carry on a conversation in English; most UK visitors, by contrast, will not even make the effort to speak the local language in the bar afterwards. In a situation like this it is hard to see the virtue in encouraging ever more people to study languages at an even lower standard than the present, at great expense to themselves, their parents and the taxpayers. It may do wonders for their self-esteem; but it sure isn’t good for the rest of us.

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