What are schools for?

Roger Titcombe's picture

This post is prompted by an article in today's 'i' newspaper that includes a table of EU and EFTA countries in order of the percentage of secondary school students learning two or more foreign languages. No detailed source was stated except 'Eurostat', which I followed up but could not find this specific table.

'Britain' came 30/31 with just 5% of students studying at least two foreign languages. The top ten countries are listed as follows.

Luxembourg, 100%

France, Czech Republic, Romania, Finland, Slovakia, all 99%

Estonia, 97%

Slovenia, 96%

Croatia, 93%

Belgium, 89%

Liechtenstein 84%

From 1989 until 2003, when I retired, I was Head of The Alfred Barrow School in Barrow-in-Furness. The Cumbria LEA had a policy of all Y7 students taking the Cognitive Ability Test (CAT), which was then provided by NfER. The mean intake CAT score was 85 or less (-1SD, 16th percentile) for the whole of my headship. The local Conservative Leader of Barrow Borough Council wrote in the local newspaper that Alfred Barrow should abandon all attempts at academic teaching and concentrate on 'vocationally relevant' training, leaving academic subjects to the Barrow schools that had brighter pupils.

However, my background was in the Leicestershire comprehensive system and with the Conservative government's (then) enlightened approach to vocational educational, the Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative (TVEI), which was not about vocational education at all, but entitlement to a large broad and balanced core curriculum for all students of both sexes and of all abilities.

I had also undertaken a full time M.Ed course at LeicesterUniversity, where I became strongly influenced by the 'Cognitive Acceleration  movement led by Professors Philip Adey and Michael Shayer.

It was therefore clear to me that the greatest educational need of Alfred Barrow students was the development of their cognition (plastic intelligence), the vehicle for which must always be cognitively demanding, but effective teaching and learning. See here and here.

Most of our teachers and Heads of Departments responded enthusiastically to this approach, and none more so than the Modern Languages Department. These were taught throughout the school in ability sets of which there were four. The main foreign language was French but the top set in each year also studied German.  At KS4 this policy continued except that there was also an optional German GCSE class as well as French which all students studied.

Because of the exposure to German in KS3, the uptake of GSCE German was good and the GCSE results were excellent. The French GCSE A-C pass rate, with every student in the school entered, was always between 30% and 40%. The A-C pass rate in the optional German GCSE class was also good.  So as a school, upwards of 30% left with a GCSE A-C in French and 10% with A-Cs in French and German.

So in our seriously cognitively challenged school, 100% of our students studied French and 25% studied French and German. This latter compares to just 5% now, in the country as a whole, where the mean intake CATs score is at the 50th percentile compared to the 16th percentile in our school.

As with Modern Languages, so with other subjects taught in mixed ability goups. Core Integrated Humanities was taught in all years of the school, but there were also GCSE Geography and History groups in KS4. We regularly had students in the best five nationally in Integrated Humanities.  All students studied English Literature as well as English Language in all years with most also taking English Literature at GCSE.

In KS4 all students took core GCSE Double Award Science, but there were also GCSE groups in the separate sciences.

Again the results were excellent with large numbers of A/A* grades in all subjects.

However, the 5+A*-C figure inevitably reflected the intake cognitive ability profile. The most common GCSE grade was D, which was frequently achieved by the very large proportion of our students with Special Educational Needs including those with Statements.

Our ex-pupils and parents certainly valued our school. I meet them often in the town and there are two active Facebook groups. Many have gone on to do very well indeed. There are lawyers, scientists, nuclear engineers, teachers as well as very well educated nurses, midwives, bank and pharmacy employees, together with an OBE for public service.

During my headship we had an HMI inspection in 1990, with OfSTEDs in 1995, 1998 and 2004, the year after I retired.  All were passed with good reports, peaking in 1998.  However despite this, we never met what New Labour were later to impose as floor targets until my successor 'vocationalised' everything that moved with GNVQs/BTECs.  Many students were leaving with 14-20 A*-C (equivalents) but unfortunately not enough included GCSE maths to avoid a bad OfSTED in 2008.

By then the Cumbria LA under joint Conservative/Labour control had agreed to a huge Academisation programme that closed not just Alfred Barrow but also the other two large (1000+) schools in the posher parts of the town.  It was thought necessary to 'dilute' the Alfred Barrow low CATs score students with those from the other schools in order to make the new Academy viable.

Coincidently, the other two schools, now bulldozed and replaced with executive housing estates, also failed their OfSTEDs in the run up to Academisation.

What happened next? The new Academy opened in 2009 and ran into immediate problems with parents and OfSTED from which it never recovered. Eventually the sponsors were removed by the DfE and control was handed to the town's nuclear submarine manufacturer, BAE systems.  However hundreds of its catchment students now travel by train every day to the LA schools in Dalton-in-Furness and Ulverston.

 And the moral of this story:

 1. You can't judge a school by its aggregated GCSE results without regard to the intake ability profile.

 2. Although schools have a much easier job with a balanced ability intake, individual students can still be well served in any comprehensive school that prioritises the individual development of its students over the DfE's and OfSTED's flawed performance measures.

 3. And of course the collapse of modern language provision in our schools is an absolute disgrace.


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Jane Eades's picture
Fri, 08/12/2017 - 14:20

At North Westminster School all pupils did a term of French, a term of Spanish and a term of German in mixed ability groups.  When registering a tutor group you could always tell which language they were doing because pupils thought it fun to answer in it.  At the end of year 8 the pupils then chose which language they would continue to GCSE.  As a result, Languages (and Maths, also in mixed ability) was a very popular subject and successful.  Unfortunately, league tables, changes in the hierarchy, etc put paid to it - as did the end of ILEA put paid to the Maths workscheme.


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 11/12/2017 - 08:33

The collapse of modern languages dates from Labour's decision to remove the requirement to teach MFL in KS4.  This meant MFL would become a KS4 option which would not be chosen by large numbers of pupils.  This in turn meant reduced demand for MFL teachers.

Gove put languages in EBacc.  This recognised the value of the subject but schools are struggling to provide languages to all.  And there are concerns that GCSE languages don't provide a strong enough base for advanced study (Note: I don't know whether this is true).

The teaching of foreign languages in the UK has been dogged for decades by the status of English as a global language.  This has led to the arrogant assumption that Brits don't need to learn another language.  I've met ex-pats in Cyprus who couldn't speak any Greek words - some even questioned the necessity.  Nevermind basic good manners and respect for locals.

agov's picture
Tue, 12/12/2017 - 14:08

"the status of English as a global language"

But according to our petulant EU overlords English is on its way out of Europe - so soon it will become restricted to parts of the Anglosphere and the others will have to make do with French.

ho ho ho

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 12/12/2017 - 14:38

agov - Trust you to make some anti-EU connection to my post. Regardless of EU decisions it is obviously sensible and courteous for our schools to teach our students European languages so that we can better communicate with our friends and partners in our shared European culture.

agov's picture
Wed, 13/12/2017 - 17:28

"Trust you to make some anti-EU connection to my post."

Not really true as I have only made any comment that might be so characterised on an extremely limited number of opportunities. But I'll take the compliment anyway, so thanks.

"it is obviously sensible and courteous for our schools to teach our students ..."

That is true and I agree but it is also true to note that (a) most of the French didn't even have the courtesy to speak French until they knew Napoleon would have them shot if they didn't and (b) most of the multilinguists I have met, mostly with English as an additional language, say that English is one of, if not the, easiest to learn at least in the early stages.

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