Blog: Solutions - Minority languages and exam marking - Simon Lebus

Blog: Solutions - Minority languages and exam marking - Simon Lebus

Election coverage has squeezed out most of the education news for the past couple of weeks although the teacher union conferences as ever have provided a number, if not of headlines, of page two ‘specials’.

There has also been continued coverage of the debate about lesser taught subjects and the withdrawal of GCSEs and A levels in them from 2017. This mainly applies to community languages and the row has been particularly intense about Turkish (offered by OCR) and Polish (offered by AQA). The decision has been criticised on the basis that it “poses a problem for the identity of young people of Polish origin in the UK”.

It is always disappointing to have to withdraw exam provision in smaller subjects and OCR has battled over the years to support community languages. In particular it ran the Asset Languages programme for several years which provided qualifications in 25 languages including some very esoteric ones such as Yoruba and Cornish. The technical demands of developing qualifications across such a wide range of languages, while ensuring rigorous and meaningful assessment, are very significant and the expertise base on which to draw to do this can in many cases be small and difficult to track down.

It was disappointing therefore after the effort that went into developing Asset Languages that the take-up was so low across all ages and all of the languages involved. The reasons were complex, but had principally to do with scarcity of appropriate teacher expertise, lack of curriculum time and most fundamentally a failure on the part of Ofsted and Government to offer recognition either in terms of contributing to good inspection results or in terms of performance accountability measures.

Behind all this there’s a deeper philosophical conundrum which is the extent to which we judge something only has educational value if there are recognised qualifications attached. This dilemma is especially pressing where community languages are concerned and where the official attitude is often that there is no real benefit to providing currency for a skill that people possess by birthright as a result of command of their mother-tongue.

A subsidiary concern is that it can be inequitable to have qualifications in community languages with a single standard irrespective of whether the candidate is a native speaker or has learned it as a second language. As a result of this they are not always a good vehicle for attracting non-native speakers who wish to learn the language as a way of accessing the culture, and can also be too easy to be a meaningful test for native speakers.

Where does this leave us? There is a whole range of very reputable qualifications provided by national bodies in the countries concerned such as the State Certificate Examinations in Polish as a Foreign Language and the Turkish Proficiency Exam from the Yunus Emre Institute. If students studying these languages wish to acquire qualifications for their trouble, that is a better and quite probably educationally sounder route for them to follow.

Complaints in the meantime, from its General Secretary, at the conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers about the cost of exam board re-marks. She states that it is down to the regulator Ofqual and the exam boards to live up to the “huge responsibility” of ensuring that marking is reliable (to avoid re-marks being necessary). She fails, however, to recognise the huge responsibility teachers’ unions and senior school management have to make sure that teachers engage in marking. The best way, after all, to ensure good quality marking is to ensure as many expert and active teachers as possible do it.

Having teachers involved in marking gives them a better understanding of and familiarity with the syllabus they are teaching , its structure and rationale, and what skills and knowledge the exams are designed to test. Perhaps more importantly for the system as a whole, if teachers mark regularly over an extended period, it is likely to lead to more consistent outcomes and to allow them to ‘internalise’ the standard in a way that would both benefit their teaching and improve the quality of marking.

Once again, Ofsted recognition for schools that encourage teachers to examine and allow them the time and space to do so could have a powerful positive impact.


Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment


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