By Bernadette Clinton

As the speaking element is removed from the 2021 GCSE, will Year 10s be taught any speaking skills at all?

The closure of UK schools to all but the children of key workers and vulnerable children has had a major impact on the lives and learning of our young people. While many schools worked hard to provide online learning and a phased return for some year groups, language learning, with the need for consistent input and practice, has suffered.

Clearly government agencies had to give urgent thought as to how the GCSE and A-level exams would be conducted next year. Ofqual, the exams regulator, has attempted to ensure that students who take the GCSE in 2021 are given the best chance to succeed. They presented proposals across a range of subjects in a consultation document aimed at reducing disruption in centres and maximising teaching time.

The results of their deliberations were published on 3 August: in modern foreign language (MFL) exams the speaking element will be excluded when awarding grades 9 to 1 (on the scale that replaced grades A*-G in 2019). Speaking would otherwise have accounted for 25% of marks. Instead, the “spoken language assessment [will] be an endorsement reported on a 3-point scale (pass, merit and distinction) against common assessment criteria”.

What this means in practice has yet to be decided, with an Ofqual spokesperson stating: “We will shortly be consulting on the detailed arrangements for the conduct and reporting of GCSE modern foreign language speaking assessments this academic year.” However, the report’s explanatory notes establish that speaking skills should be assessed “in an integrated way that supports classroom practice, that is, no formal assessment settings and arrangements other than where that is preferred and organised by the centre”.

For this teacher assessment no evidence is required. As Janet Holloway of Ofqual has been quoted as saying: “We trust teachers’ professional judgement.” In which case, it is hard to comprehend why the speaking element has been downgraded. A-level orals will be conducted as usual.

Taking the pressure off

Many teachers will no doubt be relieved that the massive effort required to prepare students for – and then conduct – the oral exams will not be a feature of the 2021 GCSE qualification. I know what a huge undertaking this was when I was Head of Department and every student took a language exam. I am also in favour of the speaking element being based on teacher assessment over the year, with students able to talk, discuss and present work in a variety of contexts.

We know that many students feel intimidated by the formality of the recorded oral exam and perform badly. This fear may have been amplified by the format of the new style exams since 2018. The three elements of role play, photo card and general conversation, which need to demonstrate evidence of spontaneous talk, questioning and responding, take a great deal of knowledge and preparation. They provide a better assessment of the skills of a budding linguist than the previous GCSE, but there is evidence that they discourage less able students.1 This could be a good opportunity to rethink, in a more imaginative way, how we assess a student’s speaking competence.

My big fear is that this decision will distort the work that teachers and learners engage in over the coming year. How can anyone conceive of a language assessment without the speaking element? We know the pressure that schools and teachers are under to get the highest possible grades in order to enhance students’ life chances. If speaking skills will not contribute to the 9 to 1 grade should we spend time on this? A signal has been given that speaking is less important than the other language skills.

Wider repercussions

Following the Ofqual announcement, a small number of schools decided to cancel their Modern Language Assistant (MLA), contacting the British Council to withdraw their support for the scheme. Of course, MLAs contribute a great many benefits apart from preparing students for speaking exams, all of which will be lost.

A 2019-20 survey found that MLAs had contributed to areas of learning including developing enthusiasm and motivation to learn the language, understanding of the language, cultural awareness and vocabulary. Their work had helped to improve overall standards in listening and speaking in more than 90% of schools and to raise pupil confidence in 86%. “The worry is that the budget for MLAs will be allocated elsewhere and will no longer be available in future, even if the speaking element returns to GCSEs post-2021,” commented Tom Dearing of the British Council.

As the programme is bilateral, a decrease in the number of host schools in England may impact the number of opportunities available for students and graduates to work as English Language Assistants overseas. Therefore it is an issue of equal concern for universities in terms of their ‘year abroad’ offer at a time when the future of Erasmus+ is uncertain. As returning English Language Assistants provide a key pipeline of language teachers for schools, the effect could be a continued downward spiral.

A further concern is that, if students do not practise their speaking skills for the entirety of Year 11, this may prevent them from progressing to A level, where speaking skills will be essential. Students may feel unprepared and decide against taking a language into Year 12, or they may start an A-level course and drop out because their speaking skills are not at the required level. The repercussions for the next cohort of university students, A-level MFL departments and even the supply of future MFL teachers has not been assessed.

Mitigating measures

To help maintain the importance of speaking competence in the London borough where I work, I am proposing a Hackney Spanish Speaking Competition (Spanish being our first taught foreign language). This will be a high-profile competition with sponsorship for pupils in Key Stages 2, 3 and 4, culminating in a glamorous public event. Other opportunities might include Year 11 students running conversation classes for those in lower age groups, enabling them to maintain their own speaking skills.

Such initiatives can be replicated elsewhere in the country. Certainly, Department Heads will need to monitor the work of their departments to ensure opportunities for speaking are not diminished. At a time when industry desperately needs to have a ready supply of linguists, let us not downgrade the work of schools in producing competent and confident speakers of other languages.


1 See ‘Language Trends 2020’ published by the British Council; files/language_trends_2020_0.pdf