Today’s Daily Telegraph has an article under the headline “More pupils pushed on to 'Mickey Mouse' qualifications ”. Anxiety about league tables is leading schools to enter pupils for GCSE exams in less rigorous ‘Micky Mouse’ subjects rather than the more vigorous traditional disciplines. Schools have been found to be offering courses in cake decorating, warehouse work and stonewalling (I presume they mean making walls out of stone rather than obstructing their future work colleagues). One of the commenters on the article has noted that the actual percentages taking these courses are actually very small, but the raw numbers look quite large.
Firstly, I’ve never been comfortable with term “Mickey Mouse” course. The title of a qualification and the topic say nothing of the academic, intellectual or practical rigour involved in being successful in the course. There is no intrinsic reason why a course on dry stonewalling is less useful, valuable or intellectually challenging than a course in Ancient Greek.
Thirdly, and this is nub of argument, articles such as the one in today’s Telegraph, are based on the underlying assumption that all children need to be taught exactly the same curriculum and that any deviation from this ideal curriculum fails our children. Successive education secretaries of all political persuasions have sought to make sure that all pupils can meet some target or another; we only have to think about the recent debates about the amount of time pupils should spend doing Physical Education, and what sort of PE that should be. I don’t know how many hours per day or week pupils should be doing of different subjects but I am starting to suspect it exceeds the amount of time that they actually spend in school. I’ve never quite got the bottom to why, if all these targets are so important why academies and free schools are exempt from them. Both Michael Gove and his Labour predecessors acknowledge that different pupils need a different sort of education, albeit in a very perverse way.
Just as we mustn’t judge a book by its cover we shouldn’t judge a course by its title. For me, a course in putting up shelves or painting a room wouldn’t have gone amiss.
As promised here are the applicants and accepts from the UCAS data (2005-2010). I am planning to put this into a better format for the LLAS Centre website.
Please note than some categories may include students not studying languages e.g. American Studies, Science combinations with arts/ humanities/languages.
Definitions: Accepted applicants (accepts): Successful UCAS applicants. The numbers of accepted applicants are close, but not necessarily identical, to the numbers who actually enrol. Applications: Up to 2007 entry, each applicant could make up to six applications to different courses and/or institutions. From 2008 entry onwards, each applicant may make up to five applications. Ratio: approximate number of application per place.
Applications and accepts
Click on the table to enlarge.
.Some categories may include students not studying languages e.g. American Studies, Science combinations with arts/ humanities/languages. Definitions: Accepted applicants (accepts): Successful UCAS applicants. The numbers of accepted applicants are close, but not necessarily identical, to the numbers who actually enrol. Applications: Up to 2007 entry, each applicant could make up to six applications to different courses and/or institutions. From 2008 entry onwards, each applicant may make up to five applications. Ratio: approximate number of application per place.
Late last year I wrote about the difficulties involved in calculating how many students are studying languages, by using HESA data. An alternative source of data is from the UK’s University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). One of the great advantages of the UK centralised admissions system it does mean access to some good data. It is possible to find out which courses are in the highest demand (by looking at application to accept ratios), details about the socio-economic profile of students, school grades etc. Arguably, UCAS data is presented is much more user friendly way than HESA data.
Caution about UCAS data
The case may be different for other subjects, but UCAS data is not very reliable for tracking trends in individual languages. The subject data presented by UCAS is based upon an applicant’s primary choice—in short UCAS staff look at an application form to see which subject the applicant is primarily applying which then forms the basis of the subject choice
Despite the clarity of the layout, there are at least two reasons why UCAS data is not particularly reliable for mapping trends in individual languages.
There is very little allowance for joint and combined honours combinations to be recorded. Where they are reported, it will be where the applicant has expressed no clear preference for a subject—these students are recorded in Y Combinations of Languages with arts and humanities, social studies, combinations of languages. We do not know what combinations they are actually doing. Unspecified combinations of languages attracted 9,589 application and 1,652 accepts. Add to this the combinations of languages with arts/ humanities (another 7,623), languages with social studies, business and law another 2,589. This is considerably more than the 4,678 studying European languages (Group R) and the non-European languages and languages (1,485).
For individual languages ‘trends’ are extremely volatile, probably not because demand is volatile, but because classification practices vary year on year. This is especially the case of ‘less widely taught languages’. Taken at face value it seems that only two students applied to study Portuguese last year.
However, as each individual is only counted once we can work out how many people might be studying for a language degree in higher education whihout worry are tenths, third and halves of students. If we add up the Group R total, the Group T totals and the Y language combinations for 2010 we get 18,027. Multiple that by 4 (assuming all these students are doing 4 year courses) and we get 72,108. This may be an underestimate as I have not included the sciences with languages/ arts and humanities, but it could also be an overestimated as I this 72,000+ assumes four-year degrees, so if I was to multiple by 3 we get 54,081 not especially close to the 42,444 I estimated from the HESA data.
UCAS is about admissions and applications to study, not statistics per se. It tells us nothing of the numbers of students who enrol on language courses in Institution-Wide Language programmes or change to (or from languages on arrival), though some of the these students are recorded in the HESA data (it depends though on how institutions report their data to HESA.
The data on which this post is based is on the UCAS website. I will post the past five years of data from the individual languages in the next day or two.
My own contribution was in the form of role-play exercise in which participants ‘played’ a Head of Languages meeting her/his Dean to discuss either a faculty reorganisation or a curriculum change programme. I enjoy role-play as a way of learning, but I realise that not everyone does. However, it seemed that most people enjoyed the exercise and benefitted putting themselves in the position of another person. Some of our HoD’s are very good actors it seems.
As the author of the role-play scenarios, it was interesting to observe the numerous directions in which a situation can play out. The briefs for each role included a section entitled ‘What is on your mind’. It was interesting to see the ways in which people used or did not use this information to their advantage (some of the items were put in as deliberate distractions, e.g. your feelings about other people). I will write more about using role-play in this context at a later date.
For me the key lesson from this event is on the importance of working relationships. In these uncertain times for higher education, how we manage our relationships is more important than ever.
I don't know what my two sons will go onto to do when they grow up, but whatever it is languages will always be useful to them. Therefore I not only back the Speak to the Future campaign in my professional capacity, but also as a parent. I want my sons not only to study languages, but to have sufficient competence to be able to work in at least one language other than English.
My own school languages experiences ended at GCSE. Although I enjoyed studying French and Russian up to the age of 16, I decided to take other subjects at A-level. I could go on forever about my belief that the English education system narrows too much after the age of 16, but as a postgraduate student I picked up my French again at the University of Bristol's School of Continuing Education. Although I made substantial progress, I am aware that I am well short of being able to describe myself as 'fluent'. Nevertheless I have been pleased that I have been able to hold conservations with French-speakers- being complimented by a shop assistant when shopping in Paris is amongst the highlights.
For my own children I want more- in fact I demand more. By the age of 16 I want them to be able to do more than ask directions, book a hotel room or express opinions about the advantages and disadvantages of hitch-hiking. The Speak to the future campaign is one which has ambitions of all our young people. It is languages and other subjects, not languages verses other subjects.
The five key aims of the campaign are:
Every language valued as an asset This will encourage policy makers and citizens to recognise that the many languages used in the homes of UK citizens are a valuable resource for social cohesion and economic success.
A coherent experience of languages for all children in primary school
This will introduce the learning of other languages and cultures as well as develop a better understanding of how the child’s own languages work.
A basic working knowledge of at least two languages including English for every child leaving secondary school
This will equip every school leaver to live and work in a global society where confidence in learning and using other languages is a major advantage.
Every graduate qualified in a second language
This will prepare future leaders in business, the professions, voluntary organisations, education and research to thrive and communicate confidently in complex global societies.
An increase in the number of highly qualified linguists
This will fulfil the growing need for language professionals, especially English speaking interpreters and translators, and for teachers and researchers specialising in languages and cultures.