Schools are using community languages such as Urdu and Polish to give themselves “an easy hit” to gain top grade GCSE passes and boost their rankings in league tables, a leading academic has said.
Figures show that more than one in three (36 per cent) of candidates who sit GCSEs in community languages obtain an A* grade - the highest figure for any subject and seven time as many as those who get the top grade for maths.
A study of GCSE trends by Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment at Buckingham University, shows the numbers taking community languages has soared by 362 per cent in the past two decades to 31,865.
“While there are good reasons for native English-speakers to study Chinese and Russian, it is unlikely the same applies to Polish, Urdu and Portuguese,” he added.
“It seems likely that a significant proportion of the candidates are native speakers of those languages when the exam is designed for those for whom English is the first language. It suggests some schools are using these subjects as an easy hit.
“Those for whom it [the language] is a mother tongue are at a considerable advantage. The low proportion of good grades awarded in maths and English [comparatively] is because, crucial to performance measures they are taken by all pupils not just a few.”
His report goes on to warn that French and German GCSEs are “in a sorry state”. “From being a mainstay of school and university courses they are in long term decline,” it adds.
The statistics show that they have gone down in take-up by nearly 50 per cent over the last decade with schools increasingly meeting the requirements for the English Baccalaureate - which ranks them on the percentage of pupils gaining five A* to C grade passes in English, maths, the sciences, a language and history and geography - by putting pupils in for other languages.
“Entries for Spanish have grown 156 per cent since 1994 and by two percent in the past year,” it adds, “This probably has something to do with the popularity of Spain as a holiday destination. But it also makes sense because Spanish is one of the four most frequently used languages across the world (the others are Mandarin, Hindi and English).”
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association for School and College Leaders, said the rise in take-up of students taking community languages “reflects the number of people speaking these languages coming into this country and demographic trends”.
“It gives them a chance to gain a qualification and improves the life chances of those who have these skills. You could argue that it would not be a responsible act for a school not to encourage such a pupil to go in for this exam.
“Bilingualism is a good thing and should therefore be celebrated.”
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education added: “It is not true to say that GCSE exams in these languages are ‘easy’ for native speakers as they test a broad range of speaking, writing and comprehension skills.
“We are taking action to ensure qualifications in these languages continue and are also robust and rigorous to match the best education systems in the world.”
Professor Smithers’ report also reveals that, surprisingly, religious studies is still amongst the fastest growing GCSE subjects despite its omission from the criteria for the English Baccalaureate [EBacc]. The numbers taking it have almost trebled from 102, 031 to 282, 099 since 1994.
Professor Smithers’ report says the omission from the EBacc “caused much consternation among church leaders - so take-up has increased in spite of the EBacc rather than because of it”.
“New arrivals to the country are strongly represented in present church congregations and it could be that the growth in religious studies qualifications is associated with immigration,” it adds. “This would be even more likely if take-up among Muslims was strong.”
The report also shows that pupils in Northern Ireland are “well in front” when it comes to exam passes with 78 per cent obtaining five A* to C grade passes compared with 68.6 per cent for England and 66.6 per cent for Wales.
“It is not a popular thing to say but an obvious candidate to account for NI’s success ... is its grammar school system,” says the report.
“England and Wales have diverged in their use of testing and exam results in recent years. While England has laid great stress on both, Wales has taken the view that too much testing gets in the way of education ... This could have played a part, possibly a major one, in the cross-over in their relative GCSE performance.” England overtook Wales 12 years ago.
A DfE spokesman said: “All pupils should have the opportunity to study foreign languages as part of a core academic curriculum to keep pace with the developing world economies - this should extend to a range of community languages.
“It is not true to say that GCSE exams in these languages are ‘easy’ for native speakers as they test a broad range of speaking, writing and comprehension skills. We are taking action to ensure that qualifications in these languages continue, and are also robust and rigorous, to match the best education systems in the world.
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