Languages and Curriculum 2000: implications for Higher Education

Date: 19 October, 2001
Location: British Academy, London
Event type: Seminar

Event report

by Paula Davis

New A level specifications in Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) aim to 'provide a sufficient basis for the further study of modern foreign languages at degree level or equivalent' ( but many colleagues in Higher Education are still unclear about this new post-16 qualification. In October 2002, the first students to have followed the Curriculum 2000 Advanced Subsidiary (AS) and Advanced (A) Level MFL specifications (introduced for the first Year 12 students in September 2000), will be entering university and this briefing day aimed to provide both a forum for the dissemination of information and a discussion of the impact of the new curriculum.

The event provided a practical insight into higher education entrance requirements under the new UCAS tariff as well as useful information on new qualifications. In addition, despite hopes to the contrary, we learnt that initial findings indicate that Curriculum 2000 is unlikely to lead to an increase in the number of students wishing to study a foreign language at degree level. However, some useful strategies for addressing this recruitment problem were suggested.

This report summarises the presentations given by the guest speakers:

An update on the pre- and post-16 modern languages curriculum

Kate Green, Principal Subject Officer, MFL and Classics, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

Kate Green placed Curriculum 2000 in context by highlighting changes to the pre-16 national curriculum with particular reference to language teaching and learning. 2002 is the last year of the current GCSE curriculum. Under the revised pre-16 national curriculum, there is more emphasis on pupils' knowledge about language and their ability to apply this knowledge. At post-16, revised GCE AS and A levels have been introduced under the banner of "Curriculum 2000" with the aims of encouraging more flexibility, greater curriculum breadth and more modularity. The reaction to Curriculum 2000 has been mixed. Initial findings indicate that Year 12 students (i.e. those in their first year of the sixth-form) now have a broader curriculum, that there have been significant increases in the take-up of certain subjects (at AS level) and that students are spending more time studying. However, there have been problems in administering the scheme, there is concern that courses are purely assessment-driven and the opportunity to study an additional subject often results in students simply studying "more of the same" rather than broadening their studies. The QCA has been monitoring the first year of Curriculum 2000 and is due to produce its final report in December 2001.

Kate went on to explain the "cashing-in" procedure for the new AS level. The 3 units which comprise an AS level can be cashed-in to obtain the AS certification. The decision about whether or not to cash-in the units has to be made in February, prior to sitting the examination. If students have cashed-in their units, the result will appear in section 7a of the UCAS form. Units that are not cashed-in should not be reported in section 7b but may be included in the student's personal statement.

Finally, Kate talked about the new advanced extension awards (AEA) which are aimed at the most able A level students. These new awards have been trialled and full information will be available shortly. The award (given at merit or distinction level) includes traditional subjects plus a new subject, Critical Thinking. In languages, the AEA will be available in French, German, Irish, Spanish, Welsh and Welsh as a second language.

For further information, please visit the QCA web-site
Queries can be sent to Kate Green, email

Investment for the future Developments within the Language Colleges

Carmel O'Hagan, CILT

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Carmel O'Hagan talked about the role of the specialist language colleges in motivating learners and making modern languages attractive from an early age. Specialist colleges are funded through central government and business and are required to offer something in return to the community. The aim of the specialist language colleges is to foster a positive attitude to language learning so that it is seen as important and something that everyone can do. It is intended that this will result in an increasing number of more highly motivated students studying modern foreign languages at higher education level. The heart of the programme is to raise standards. Some interesting initiatives are coming out of the colleges including the use of new technology to make language learning more appealing to boys; the opportunity to study two foreign languages (and possibly three) at Key Stage 3; a languages for all policy at post-16 (although not necessarily to AS or A level); and the opportunity for sixth-form students to spend a month abroad on relevant work experience funded by projects such as Dialogue 2000.

For further information on specialist language colleges, please refer to

Curriculum 2000 from the UCAS perspective

Mary Myles, Curriculum and Development Officer, UCAS

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Mary Myles reported on the findings of the Curriculum 2000 implementation surveys and looked in some detail at the new UCAS tariff. The survey results confirm that applicants to higher education will be presenting a diverse range of "new" qualifications on their UCAS forms. It is estimated that at least 80% of applicants for 2002 will have AS qualifications on their forms. The expectation is that when students complete their first three modules at sixth-form, they will cash them in and obtain a certificate (AS level). However, some students do not cash-in their modules (some schools have a controversial no cash-in policy) so their grades will not be listed on their UCAS form although they may be listed in the personal statement. Some applicants will have VCE (vocational certificate of education) qualifications - a replacement for the GNVQ. Key skills (application of number; communication and information technology) will also appear on the UCAS forms although wider key skills (working with others, improving own learning and performance, and problem solving) are not offered by all institutions. There is also a new advanced extension award (not included in the 2002 entry) and there are new free-standing mathematics units for scientists. We will find that applicants will have widely differing units as the modular programmes are of variable size. As a guide, AS level comprises 3 units and A level comprises 6 units. We may have applicants with18 units (equivalent to 3 A levels) or 27 units (equivalent to 4.5 A levels). Most will probably have 21 units (equivalent to 3.5 A levels).

Under the new UCAS tariff, 120 points = grade A at A level, 100 points = grade B, 80 points = grade C, 60 points = grade D and 40 points = grade E. At AS level, 60 points = grade A, 50 points = grade B, 40 points = grade C, 30 points = grade D and 20 points = grade E. The Scottish system is slightly different to reflect the higher number of subjects taken by students in Scotland. It is not mandatory for higher education to use the tariff although the majority of institutions are doing so. Entry requirements and offers can be made as points or grades and increasingly grade/point hybrids are used, e.g. 280 points with Grade B in French. UCAS figures confirm previous evidence that the number of students applying for and being accepted for foreign language degrees has been in decline since 1996. At present, the number of courses far exceeds student demand.

Changes to the post-16 Curriculum, a new publication out this year, has been written by UCAS in conjunction with the QCA and is aimed specifically at higher education. For further information and a downloadable pdf version of this document, please see

Information on what schools and colleges are offering and the kinds of programmes students are taking can be found in the UCAS November 2000 survey report at The July 2001 survey report will be available by the end of the year.

For further information please visit the UCAS web-site

Queries can be sent to Mary Myles, tel 01242 544867 or email

So what's happening with AS? Looking at language recruitment.

Keith Marshall, University of Wales, Bangor

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Keith Marshall presented his research findings on AS and A2 level foreign language take-up in UK schools and colleges during the academic years 2000-2001 and 2001-2002. He also reported on language teachers' views of the new AS and A2 level courses, which were mostly a balance between positive and negative.

It had been hoped that Curriculum 2000, with the opportunity it provides for students to study an extra subject in the sixth-form, would encourage an increase in numbers taking languages. Indeed, early signs indicated that more students were studying languages at AS level. However, this has not been translated into an increase in numbers studying a language at A2 level - languages tend to be "dropped" after the first year. Keith's findings (based on a survey undertaken during September/October 2001) indicate that there seems to be no prospect of the new AS level leading to an increase in the number of students studying foreign languages at A2 level in comparison with the old A level. "Regrettably, AS is not on the brink of turning round dramatically the declining fortunes of post-16 language learning in the UK."

It is essential that we find a way of reversing the decline in numbers studying foreign languages at UK universities. Strategies include getting across the facts in order to dispel the following myths: -

  • pupils get better grades in other subjects;
  • the only jobs for linguists are in teaching and translating;
  • you have better employment prospects if you do vocational subjects.

In reality:

  • languages consistently have higher proportions of A and B grades than nearly each other subject at AS and A level;
  • language graduates enter a variety of fields of employment (including business services, manufacturing; and banking/finance);
  • new language graduates (particularly those in single honours French or German) have a better employment rate than graduates of most other disciplines.

The message needs to be delivered at an early age as the main fault line in the language learning process is the transition from GCSE to A level, i.e. not enough students are studying language A levels.

Taunton's 6th Form College: a case study

Jenny Fitton, Principal, Taunton's College, Southampton

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Jenny Fitton presented a personal perspective on the practical impact of Curriculum 2000 on a sixth-form college. Jenny has found that Curriculum 2000 has had significant key benefits for her students by giving them opportunities for greater breadth, to mix academic and vocational options and to develop key skills. On the whole, there has been a positive reaction from students. There have been teething problems but once these have been resolved, Curriculum 2000 will have much to offer. From the higher education perspective, there are several key points we need to consider in relation to Curriculum 2000 and entry requirements. As students are not required to cash in their AS units, we must not make assumptions from the appearance or non-appearance of AS level qualifications on their UCAS forms. If AS levels are not listed as a qualification we need to make further investigations - students who do not cash in their AS units may divulge their grades in their personal statement. The new AS level in Critical Thinking has proved to be a popular subject - the course teaches students how to use and interpret material and seems to have a beneficial impact on other AS grades.

Jenny sounded a warning that if higher education is relying on Curriculum 2000 to fill places we will be disappointed. Although more students are now taking languages in Year 12 (i.e. at AS level), this increase is not continuing into the following year (A2 level). This concurs with Keith Marshall's findings above. However, we should view the current debate as an opportunity to see what is happening at AS level and to be more pro-active, e.g. by visiting local schools and colleges and building some bridges in Year 12. Such recruitment drives are particularly important in the local community as the number of A level students progressing to local HE establishments is on the increase (in the case of Taunton's College, 70% of their students who go onto higher education go to a local HE establishment). We also need to bear in mind that "HE institutions are key players in influencing student choices and attitudes." What we say about entry requirements will have a major impact and how we view key skills and AS level grades on this year's UCAS forms will greatly affect future years' students. Finally, we should remember that the current cohort of sixth-formers have been "guinea pigs" for Curriculum 2000 and that due to the increased assessment load it has been difficult for them to do the enrichment activities we may normally expect to see on their personal statements.

The key skills component

Dilly Fung, Arts Faculty Teaching and Learning Co-ordinator, University of Southampton

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Key skills are now appearing on UCAS forms but there seems to be a lack of awareness at higher education level as to what they actually involve. Following the Dearing Report, key skills are now free-standing and are aimed at all students whether they are studying academic or vocational programmes. The three main key skills are communication, application of number and information technology; the wider key skills (related to employability) are working with others, improving own learning and performance, and problem solving. There are five levels of key skills qualifications but the ones we are most likely to come across on UCAS forms are level 2 (on a par with GCSE) and level 3 (on a par with A level). Key skills, particularly at level 3, should be taken seriously by admissions tutors as this level is very demanding and requires a great deal of independent learning and advanced oral presentation skills. However, a key point to consider is that not all students have been offered the opportunity to study key skills so we should not discriminate against those who do not have a key skills qualification.

For key skills specifications and guidance documents, please see

The three main awarding bodies are:

For information on the numerical value given to key skills under the new UCAS tariff system, please see

Exploring the decline in the take-up of ML degrees

Catherine Watts, University of Brighton

Catherine Watts closed the day by presenting initial findings from her doctorate research into the decline in the take-up of modern languages at degree level. Her research methodology has comprised interviews and questionnaires with selected undergraduates, six-formers, heads of modern foreign language departments in schools and modern foreign language programme leaders in universities. Catherine stressed that the initial findings from her qualitative survey may change and that it is not possible to generalise the results. However, sixth form students and first year undergraduates have cited some interesting reasons for not continuing their study of modern foreign languages at degree level. These include a perceived lack of relevance to future careers; absence of a clear idea of career paths following a foreign language degree; and finding competition from other EU countries to be demotivating. There seems to be a general climate of negativity that needs to be addressed if we are to increase recruitment levels for modern foreign language degrees. A possible way forward (particularly in response to career concerns) is to ensure that Keith Marshall's positive statistics on language graduate employability reach sixth-form students and their careers advisers at an early stage.

(Catherine will be presenting a synthesis of her findings at the Subject Centre/CILT conference 'Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education')