How the education system is failing our children in MFL lessons

"Students will gain more confidence in a 1 hour private lesson with me than a term at school!"

As a private tutor, you could perceive that every failing school student would leave me rubbing my palms with glee at the thought of all that extra cash.  Quite the opposite.  I cannot begin to express my frustration after working with students across several state and private schools in the area on their Modern Foreign Language studies.  I would much rather spend my time helping them to excel at languages and conversational competency than explaining the basics to them; when a GCSE student points and the word “et” in French (and) and asks me what it means, just two weeks before her mock exams, I believe I have cause for concern.  She is no exception.

Three months before they are due to sit their GCSE exams, I am working with a handful of conscientious students – truly great kids with caring families - kids whose language skills after five or more years of French classes are quite frankly lower than the skills of my “basic” beginners.  Moreover, students are so terrified at the prospect of actually having to speak a foreign language, due to the lack of practice opportunities in class.   

Don’t think for one moment that my criticism lies with the teachers; not at all.  Anybody outside of the teaching circle simply does not appreciate the sheer volume of work that goes into preparing exams and following a nitpicking syllabus.  The restrictions are such that children are left with almost no useful language skills outside of the classroom.  Ask them to write ten sentences detailing what we must do to protect the environment and they may oblige, but ask them to order in a restaurant and many are reluctant to even try.  Speaking proficiency and confidence really need to be addressed – and any teacher faces an uphill battle, given the increasing class sizes and the mountain of work in front of them to tick all the boxes from the exam board demands.

Every year after the GCSE results are published, we hear the familiar cries that “GCSEs are getting easier”.  If that is truly the case, then we are in even more trouble than it already seems.  We do have an increasing number of students achieving high grades – so how do we have such a disparity between the apparent capabilities of students and the results they are seemingly achieving?  The answer is simple; an increasing shift towards coursework and controlled assessments has allowed desperate teachers the potential to bow to the pressure exerted on them by school league tables and OFSTED visits. 

When the students I began working with achieved A grades in their controlled assessments – along with the entire class I might add, I began to ask questions.  In some classes, students have confided in me that the speaking assessments, which should be painstakingly prepared by the students themselves, are simply distributed to them by the teacher, to learn by rote and regurgitate under exam conditions.  Results simply do not correlate with the students’ abilities. 

Worse still are my findings from private schools; students without text books or exercise books just weeks away from their important mock exams.  With just a wedge of printed vocabulary lists for company, how is this student expected to engage with the material and suddenly comprehend French grammar and sentence syntax?  This fills me with even more disdain; these parents are paying for what is perceived to be a superior education, but perhaps this should not be assumed.  Should we be subjecting our children to the same dull, drab learning techniques of yesteryear when we know so much better than that now?!  Furthermore, surely this is even more topical now with the increasing rise in dyslexia or ADHD sufferers; does this rote learning provide a positive environment for all to flourish?  It is decidedly doubtful. 

My old professor was always an advocate of the shift towards controlled assessments; her view always hinged on the fact that there is nothing more unnatural than a 2 hour writing exam, completely devoid of interaction or creative stimuli; no books, internet access or dictionaries.  However, how can we be encouraged to move away from the stressful exam system when the new system clearly has more flaws than the last?  At least with exams, we could be reasonably sure that it was the work of the student, rather than the teacher...  

It may be simply easier to close our eyes to this shocking behaviour; to keep quiet and accept the A* grades, letting our children plough on to further education.  Do school league tables really indicate the quality of the education they are receiving, or does it simple indicate the amount of information they are being force-fed?  There is no escaping the looming question: what is the real purpose of education?  We are creating a culture of yes-men.  It seems that passing exams and propelling the school up a therefore meaningless league table has become far more important than equipping our children with any life skills.  If this is the aim, it is a resounding success.

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