21 Apr 2009

Are we following the script?


The BBC News website was reporting quite heavily on Sunday claims made by an undercover reporter regarding advice given by former MFL Chief Examiner Terry Murray on how to help students get as many marks as possible in their GCSE oral examinations. Whilst I don't necessarily agree with some of Mr Murray's guidance, let's be clear that there is a stark difference between cheating, and doing our best as teachers to allow students to gain the best possible mark in their exams, and I'm angered and saddened by the ignorance of both Ruth Alexander, the undercover 'teacher', and Nick Gibb, the Shadow Schools' Minister, who appeared as a guest on Donal McIntyre's programme on BBC Radio 5, which ran with this as the top story.

Mr Gibb expressed disbelief at how teachers were able to get hold of the conversation questions so soon before the exam. What he obviously doesn't know is that these questions are not set by the board, but by the teachers, and that whilst students do prepare answers for these questions, they do not know which questions they are going to be asked. I would have also hoped that Ruth Alexander took the time to read through the GCSE MFL specifications, which would have emphasised the rules and guidelines for the oral exam. For the AQA exam, the students are allowed to make notes on the role play section and bring those into the exam - they don't even need to learn that bit. AQA also send teachers lists of suggested questions. There are schools who have banks of model answers, it is no different to any other subject on the curriculum.

I feel that this report also shows a complete lack of understanding as to what is required to learn a language at GCSE. We are dealing with students with a massive range of abilities, from naturally gifted linguists to as Mr Murray puts it, "Poor Joey". We have management, inspectors, local authorities, as well as the government putting pressure on schools to raise standards, whilst language departments round the country feel the pinch as numbers continue to drop in certain languages. Nick Gibb would surely love us to teach students the finer points of French grammar, to enable our pupils to converse fluently about Camus or Brecht, but for the run of the mill student, it just isn't going to happen, and Mr Gibb should really know better. It is one thing to prepare students for the speaking exam, and another for the student to actually perform under pressure in the exam. If we consider that 25% of their final grade comes from how they perform and cope in that 10-15 minutes, even the best thespian would do well sticking to that 'script'.

We teach some students set phrases, specific vocabulary, basic (and I mean basic) grammatical structures, and hope that they revise effectively, prepare properly and learn what they can for the exam. For many of the less able, a recording of the exam might sound like a few pages from a Berlitz phrase book, but it's time that the ignorant became informed, so as to avoid non-stories like this. It is naive and foolish to think that teachers in other subjects don't prepare their students to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it, because schools are jockeying for position in the league tables.

In her post on a very lively TES MFL forum, Helen Myers makes a valid point when she says that teachers "...are left with an invidious responsibility in the absence of clear guidance. " The teachers are not being unprofessional, nor are they breaking any rules set by the exam boards. So for critics of the current method and practice used in GCSE oral examinations, perhaps you should look at the rules laid down by these exam boards, and be very careful who you call a cheat.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

A really helpful post Alex. Thanks!
Helen Myers.
(Can't remember my password etc hence anonymity below!)

Marie-France Perkins said...

Very well written Alex. In times when MFL is suffering and severe grading, we do not need that type of report. I wish the "undercover teacher" could compare us with other subjects and see that we fare much worse especially when it comes to coursework.

alice said...

Thank you for this post. I attended one of Terry Murray's course on how to improve GCSE grades and I found him very down to earth and helpful. I used his tips, especially for coursework and I do think his method helps to improve grades. The problem is not him, it is the way exams are run. And as usual, politicians don't know their topics!

A Salt said...

This is an excellent post, after a weekend that has left many MFL teachers feeling defensive and cricised about the huge amounts of work we put into our teaching. I, as many, many others, can completely stand over what I do to prepare the pupils for their GCSE oral, and I personally think the amount they have to learn is outrageous!

Laura Walker said...

Absolutely Alex, well said. I worry that various folks who don't have all the facts are wading in with threats about firing teachers who "cheat", and this will prevent staff from being honest about where the lines are drawn in exam preparation.

Carol said...

I think you have really summed up the issue here, Alex. One of the things which most appalled me when listening to thre programme was Mr Gibb's absolute lack of knowledge of the way the oral is conducted, as you mentioned. His researchers had obviously not done their job in briefing him.

Langwitch said...

Couldn't agree more, Alex. Like Amanda, I think it's ridiculous what they're supposed to do in the exam.

Jo Rhys-Jones said...

Great response Alex - well done and thank you!

IC Jones said...

Great post Alex! What puzzles me is the idea that a student could just learn parrot-fashion all the phrases for their speaking tests. First, it shows a complete lack of understanding of what the GCSE is about-as 6 topics' worth of questions and a rather large number of role-play settings makes this an extreme challenge. Second, if the students were able to retain such an amount of language, the chances are they would also be able to manipulate it too! Of course we teach vocabulary and structures to be learnt. Shouldn't we??
Isabelle
http://isabellejones.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

Other countries don't seem to test their students on whether they can remember answers to questions they've learnt by heart. Other countries seem to test the students on how well they can use the language they have learnt so far , and that is what language testing should be about. I find it outrageous that our students have to remember sentences by heart for the exam but not because there is so much to remember (since there isn't). I find it outrageous because they should not be tested on whether they can produce the sentences they've learnt off the sheet their teacher's marked, but on their MFL skills!!! I don't trust the examination boards and their dodgy exams.

MsResearcher said...

I think Ruth Alexander did a good job here because she shows that there is something seriously wrong with the format of the exam! I wish more people were critical of the way our students are tested by the examination boards!

Alex Blagona said...

MsResearcher, thank you for your comment. It's a shame you couldn't leave your real name. I agree with you that we should look more at the nature of the exams and the exam boards, but the report was slanted towards accusing those who prepare students for the GCSE of cheating, when at no point is this actually happening to the extent that Ruth Alexander was implying. Ruth is not a languages teacher, and judging by her French in the report nor is she a linguist. Therefore I can only assume that her knowledge of what it takes to pass a GCSE exam in MFL comes second hand, and is therefore unavoidably one-sided and misinformed.