Class divide opens up in teaching of languages

State schools trail private sector in GCSE league tables
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The Independent Online

The stark divide between language teaching in state and private schools was exposed in exam league tables published by the Government yesterday.

Figures show that at 550 state comprehensive and secondary modern schools fewer that one in 10 pupils was awarded a top grade A* to C grade GCSE pass in a language.

In 34 of them – including two of the Government's flagship academies, the Madejski Academy in Reading (named after its sponsor, the Reading football club chairman) and Havelock Academy in Grimsby, not a single pupil gained a high pass.

This is in stark contrast to those at the top of this new table, which for the first time ranks schools on their performance in modern foreign languages. Of the 62 schools where all pupils received an A* to C, 58 are independent schools and four are selective grammar schools. The figures underline what language-teaching specialists have been claiming for years – that language teaching is becoming the preserve of the affluent middle classes and is dying a death in state schools following the Government's decision four years ago to make the subject voluntary for 14 to 16-year-olds.

Last night it was being said by education experts that the state of language teaching in schools was the sharpest example of the way the class divide operates within the education system.

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that one of the reasons for the divide was that – because of the pressure on schools to do well looking at performance over GCSEs as a whole – many schools were getting their pupils to drop languages as a subject.

"The Government should recognise that modern language GCSEs are harder than other GCSEs and that this has been a disincentive for young people to study them beyond the age of 14," he added.

"Studies, including a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority [the Government's exams watchdog] report published last year, clearly demonstrate that languages GCSEs are harder.

"Because it is harder to get a high grade in modern language GCSEs, schools are penalised in the league tables if large numbers of pupils take them. This is yet another disincentive.

"ASCL has been pressing for many years for the Government to grasp this nettle but they have yet to do anything about it."

Figures show the take-up of French and German at GCSE has slumped by more than half over the past decide – with the fall-off accentuated after the Government took the decision to make the subject voluntary for 14 to 16-year-olds. Independent schools have cited the decision as a key factor in persuading more parents to opt to send their children to private schools.

Jonathan Shephard, the former chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, said: "The Government did make one quite clear mistake in making languages optional after key stage three [for 11 to 14-year-olds]. That has led to a huge decline in language teaching in the maintained sector. If you realised that in the local state school the possibility of going on to do languages at A-level to any standard is dropping fast, then that's one factor [in the rise in private school numbers in recent years]."

Ministers have begun a drive to increase language teaching in primary schools to combat the fall-off – and aim to make it compulsory for every child to start to learn a language from the age of seven by the end of the decade.

However, language experts said it could take years before the benefits of this drive were felt at GCSE level – although figures for take-up of the subject at GCSE last summer did show the decline beginning to tail off for the first time.

Top of the class: Colchester Royal Grammar School, Essex

For the second year in a row, Colchester Royal, a mainly boys' school with girls in the sixth form, finished top of the A-level tree when it came to the average number of points per student. It is a selective grammar school with almost 800 pupils, who averaged 1,359 points each, the equivalent of more than five A grades.

The school's headmaster, Ken Jenkinson, puts the success of his pupils in the exam room down to the good relationships they enjoy with their teachers. "I tend to think that results are a by-product of the ethos at the school, where students and teachers work in partnership to get the very best results they can," he said. "Both staff and students are happy to be here and enjoy working together. The staff also offer a wide range of extra-curricular activities – music, sport and drama are all strong – so it's a very busy school where the students get involved in all sorts.

"The big advantage of this is that it enables the students and staff to engage in a different environment to the classroom. The positive relationships that are built up in the sports field or the drama studio have a knock-on effect in the classroom. We want pupils to leave here having enjoyed their education and developed personally, and if a student is going to enjoy their education, they're going to have to be involved in the wider life of the school."

One of the reasons why the school has been so successful is that many of its pupils take five subjects, accruing many more points than they would if they studied only three or four. This year one star student is taking eight, but Mr Jenkinson is still happy that A-levels offer a decent challenge.

"A levels have served the students here well, but I do think the introduction of an A* grade will allay the critics who might say it's easier now to attain an A grade," he said. "To get 600 out of 600 will certainly be a very difficult challenge for a student. The challenge has always been there, it's just that without that A* some people have probably said we've not been able to differentiate between the very best students."

In detention: St Bede's Catholic Science College, Boston, Lincolnshire

Although St Bede's did not technically produce the country's most disastrous GCSE results, it is the worst school still open. Parkside Community Technology College in Plymouth finished bottom of the table, but it closed in August last year.

Yesterday, Lincolnshire's education authority said it had sacked St Bede's entire governing body at the end of last year based on the school's exam performance. Only 7 per cent of its pupils achieved five GCSEs including English and maths at grades A* to C, less than half the number who hit the same target in 2006.

"Lincolnshire County Council was disappointed by the results at St Bede's Catholic Science College and therefore has taken decisive action by removing the governing body and establishing an interim executive board," said Andy Breckon, the children's services assistant director at the authority. This board is charged with ensuring significant improvements are made in 2009 and the future."

Ofsted reported after a 2007 inspection of the school that attainment on entry was below average. It said almost a third of pupils had learning difficulties and disabilities, well above the national average. The report also stated that for almost a quarter of pupils, English was not their first language. Results in national English tests were "disappointingly low" and the college had gone through two acting head teachers since its previous inspection. A permanent head is not due to take up the post until the next academic year.

Overall, Ofsted painted a picture of a college which was improving. It said St Bede's "provides a satisfactory education for its students overall, with some features of the college being good. Value for money is satisfactory. Standards are below average, but students' achievement is satisfactory overall."

The college had "responded well" to its poor exam performance in English and had developed a strategy which was "beginning to have a positive impact on current progress". So its position at the bottom of the GCSE table must have come as a shock and helps explain why Lincolnshire County Council took such drastic action.

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