Upgrading A-level Spanish: five answers

BAS editor Stephen M. Hart

With the help of Bulletin readers and others, we have just completed the project designed to upgrade the options on offer in the Spanish A-level syllabus.  (The project’s official title is ‘Developing a Partnership Between Universities and Schools in Order to Enhance the Student Experience of the Spanish A-Level’ (15 March 2021—14 March 2022), and it was funded by UCL’s HEIF Knowledge Exchange and Innovation Fund, itself funded by UKRI.)

Researchers have put forward five recommendations that, we believe, will simultaneously enhance the student experience of the Spanish A-level curriculum as well as lead to increased uptake of Spanish A-level in secondary schools.

One of the tasks we set ourselves when undertaking this project was to discover why it is that Modern Languages Departments persuade only 5% of their GCSE students to take an A-level in their subject while Geography and the STEM subjects typically convert 10-15% of the students taking their subjects at GCSE level into A-level students.[1]

In some cases this may be as a result of the desire to study something new – which is clearly at work with those students who choose to do A-levels in subjects such as Psychology, Philosophy and Economics – but there is mounting (though not incontrovertible) evidence – including from OFSTED – that students find the Modern Languages curriculum at GCSE and A-level to be ‘underwhelming’.[2]

The question of how we should address this failing was made by a number of presenters at the Modern Languages Open Day held at University College School on 3 November 2021: we need to provide a more coherent narrative about the varied careers that Modern Languages graduates achieve, as well as a better articulation of the specific skills set gained as a result of a Modern Languages BA which is valued highly by employers. As one commentator suggested: “We need to take a leaf out of the STEM textbook and tell a better story about how Modern Languages can get you a great job.” As another of the presenters quipped: “If we can’t beat them, let’s join them”.

In our project we tried to dig deeper into the problem with the Modern Languages A-level curriculum. We focussed in particular on that group of students who appear to have enjoyed their GCSE in Modern Languages and who would have been interested in taking an A-level in Modern Languages but claimed that they were put off by some aspects of the A-level curriculum. We received a great deal of feedback in our first Opinio (sic) survey carried out in June-July 2021 that suggested that, for those students who are taking STEM subjects or Economics, the component that they find most off-putting is the literature/film paper.[3] If we adopt the strategy of “If we can’t beat them, join them”, where would this lead us? Our conclusion was that this group of students could be incentivised to take a Modern Language at A-level if their preferences were taken into account and other options made available to them. One of the key recommendations of this project, therefore, is that the Spanish A-level should provide three new options as follows:

  • ‘Science and Technology in Spanish’
  • ‘Business and Economics in Spanish’, and 
  • ‘Film-making in Spanish’.

We suggest that these options will be attractive to STEM, Economics and Creative Arts students who like languages but are put off by the current structure of the A-level syllabus.[4] Students taking one of these tracks would take the same language courses as all other students (i.e. oral as well as written language) but – instead of the literature/film options – they would take one of the three options listed above for their A-level.

We would like to emphasise that the aim here is not to disadvantage literary studies or film studies in the Spanish A-level in favour of a whole-scale adoption of STEM + Economics options. This would be not only controversial but counter-productive. Our assumption, indeed, is that those students who study languages and use that knowledge in order to investigate the culture, literature and film underpinned by the language they are studying will continue to choose the literature and film options at A-level, and we also assume that this group of students will continue to constitute the largest group within those students opting to take Modern Languages at A-level. The study of literature and film offers access to a rich cultural capital that would not be available, for example, in the ‘Science and Technology’ and ‘Business and Economics’ options.[5] Indeed, the study of literature and film can be reinvigorated by a new focus on the ‘cultural competencies’ that are articulated by literary and filmic texts.[6]

That said, our proposal is that offering options in Science, Business and Film-making will broaden the appeal of the Modern Languages A-level and increase Sixth Form ML enrolments, allowing students in the sciences, economics and the arts the opportunity to add an extra linguistic bow to their portfolio while retaining their focus on science, economics and fine art. Pointing in a similar direction these options are likely to appeal to a new generation of ML teachers in secondary schools who may not have studied film and literature at university level and are therefore more reluctant to take on the teaching of the literature and film options in their overall teaching portfolio.    

But questions were raised about whether these new options would work for all teachers, and also – more pertinently – what would these options look like? We decided to provide a mock-up description of what the Science, Business and Film-making options would look like in an article ‘Vote for Modern Languages’, published in the February 2022 edition of the Bulletin of Advanced Spanish.[7] To get some feedback on these options, we also included a survey in the article, which – after asking respondents to identify themselves – asked them the following four questions:

1. Would you like to see a new option in Paper 2 of the A-level Spanish exam on Science & Technology in Spanish?

2. Would you like to see a new option in Paper 2 of the A-level Spanish exam on Business & Economics in Spanish?

3. Would you like to see a new option in Paper 2 of the A-level Spanish exam on Film-making in Spanish?

4.  Would you be more in favour of these options if you knew that there would be options at University to study these subjects alongside a language?

We asked respondents to rate their approval rating for each of these proposals on a scale of 1 (negative) to 10 (positive). The Opinio survey was carried out in March 2022, and it is clear that these proposed options have met with a ringing endorsement across the ML community. All of the options, that is, Science (Q.1), Business (Q.2), and Film-making (Q.3) were looked on favourably by respondents. We received 110 responses, showing that Secondary School teachers (average scores: Q.1=7.1, Q.2=7.4, Q.3=6.7, Q.4=8.3) and university teachers (Q.1=7.39, Q.2=7.71, Q.3=8.32, Q.4=7.97) are fully behind these proposals. Year-11 students also favour these reforms (Q.1=5.93, Q.2= 6.26, Q.3=6.30), and, like Sixth-Formers, they view follow-through at university as essential (Q.4=7.85).[8] This is precisely the pool of students we must reach out to, including those pupils in State Schools that partner with Independent Schools, in order to widen participation in ML teaching and learning at A-level.

The results of the February-March 2022 survey, in a nutshell, suggest that we should push forward with the proposed reform of the Spanish A-level curriculum.   

Distilling the various recommendations from this year-long study is not easy.  We decided to focus on concrete and achievable aims and objectives rather than blue-skies thinking. Our five recommendations, thus, are as follows:

  • Create sample exam papers and sample curricular materials for each of the three A-level options in Science & Technology in Spanish, Business & Economics in Spanish, and Film-making in Spanish
  • Contact A-level boards that offer Spanish to gauge their opinion on these new options and provide assistance to them if they would like to include options of this kind in their current Spanish A-level curriculum
  • Encourage and incentivise ML university departments to create new courses that will allow students taking these options to continue these curricular combinations to BA level
  • Strengthen the attractiveness of the provision of literature and film options by focussing on the cultural capital and competencies articulated in literary and filmic texts
  • Articulate more clearly the narrative on the employability of students who take languages:  “We need to take a leaf out of the STEM textbook and tell a better story about how Modern Languages can get you a great job.”

In order to implement these five recommendations, the BAS editorial team have created sample curricular materials for each of the three A-level options in Science & Technology in Spanish, Business & Economics in Spanish, and Film-making in Spanish.  We will be contacting A-level boards over the summer and autumn of 2022 to propose changes to the current Spanish A-level curriculum based on these proposals.

This project has led to the creation of a new proposal for targeted investment at UCL in “Language”, submitted on behalf of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities to the UCL’s Strategic Plan 2022-27 on 31 March 2022 (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/strategic-plan-2022-27), which includes incentivising ML university departments to create new BA cross-faculty courses combining languages and science. We will be using the BAS student essay competition – as well as a series of specially commissioned articles on A-level texts that focus on cultural capital and competencies, to be published in BAS – as a vehicle to enhance the quality of student essays on literature and film options. Finally we will introduce a new focus in BAS on employability for ML graduates, commissioning opinion-pieces from individuals who have used their ML as a spring-board to success in their lives at work, in order to create a more vibrant narrative about how Modern Languages can open doors into a variety of different careers.

[1] ‘Developing a Partnership Between Universities and Schools in Order to Enhance the Student Experience of the Spanish A-level’; https://www.ucl.ac.uk/european-languages-culture/research/research-projects

[2] Oliver Hopwood, ‘Planning for Growth in Modern Languages: Some Fundamentals’, paper given at UCL webinar, ‘Modern Languages: Challenges and Solutions’, 14 October 2021; for recording see webinar recording in previous note.

[3] Stephen Hart, ‘Modern Languages: Challenges and Solutions: The Results of the Bulletin of Advanced Spanish Opinio Modern Languages Survey (June-July 2021)’, BAS (October 2021); https://bulletinofadvancedspanish.files.wordpress.com/2022/02/bas-5.1-october-2021-archive-2.pdf

[4] For discussion of the three options see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMDySGlAgUE.

[5] Helen Laurenson, ‘Re-framing language A-level in the Post-Covid Context‘, plenary lecture given at UCL on 3 May 2022.

[6] Helen Laurenson, ‘Putting life skills at the core of the Spanish A level’, BAS (October 2021); https://bulletinofadvancedspanish.files.wordpress.com/2022/02/bas-5.1-october-2021-archive-2.pdf

[7] https://bulletinofadvancedspanish.com/vote-for-modern-languages/

[8] For the survey results, see the Results Survey (March 2022).