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Should schools trade tough subjects for higher standardized test scores?

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Thibault Camus / AP / File

(Read caption) Fireworks illuminate the Eiffel Tower in Paris during the Bastille Day celebration. July 14, 2009. British schools are considering getting rid of French language classes in order to help their students score higher on their exams.

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The BBC asked “Should British pupils give up studying French?” However, the key issue isn’t whether or not children should be learning French, but the fact that schools are encouraging children to take easier subjects so that the school scores well on the league tables. Crucially this is not always to the advantage of the children, especially if they plan to apply to elite universities.

Independent schools tend not to do this because their reputation requires that they take greater interest in their pupils. In contrast, many state schools are taking the easy way out. Without radical reform of the education system, the government will only be able to choose between the blunt tools of either compulsion or league tables. Both have undesirable unintended consequences.

Others in the article echo my point. For example, the language learning expert Paul Noble states that "the core reason is because pupils know French is difficult to pass, and difficult to get something out of it”, while Michel Monsauret, attache for education at the French Embassy in London, points out that subjects such as religious studies are on the increase because they are perceived to be easier. Mr Monsauret correctly states that “languages are taught more extensively at private schools in the UK, and their pupils go on to dominate places at Oxbridge and the other best universities."

Predictably the National University of Teachers (NUT) is appalled: “The policy drift on modern foreign languages is unforgivable”. Children, according to the NUT, aren’t adequately equipped for life in a global society. A bit rich coming from an organization set up to protect the interests of teachers even when against the benefits to parents and children; an organization that is the biggest impediment to reform. Asking the NUT what is best for children is like asking a turkey what should be eaten at Christmas – the goose will always be cooked.

Whether one’s child should be taught French, German, Cantonese or Chamicuro should be solely that of the parents. Of course, they will be limited by what is being offered, which is an argument for a dynamic and competitive system – one driven by the free market, not bureaucratic oversight. That learning a language involves no literature shows how bankrupt the teaching is many of our schools. As such, the lamentations of Aida Edemariam and others are frankly irrelevant.

The teaching of French – or lack of it – is symbolic of the wider failure of bureaucratic control of the education.


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