A-level Chinese is a pointless scam
A flawed exam is depriving the UK of China experts
We need to know more about China, both as individuals and as a country. We need linguists who can interpret its society and politics. It’s a scandal therefore that our exam system is making that task even harder than it needs to be and that the A-level Chinese which hundreds of students have received today has become little more than a scam.
This year, 1,349 students took A-level Chinese. While we don’t have a breakdown of the figures, anecdotal evidence suggests the majority of A-level Chinese candidates were native speakers of the language: Chinese citizens studying at British private schools. Further evidence for this comes from the change in the number of candidates for Chinese A-level during the Covid pandemic. In 2021 it fell by nearly 20%, down to 1,312 from the 1,617 who took it in 2020. Covid restrictions meant there were fewer Chinese students studying in British private schools. This year it rose by 3%.
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In conversations with a few of these Chinese students, all expressed initial mystification about why they were obliged to take the A-level. Then they came to realise they were playing a game, both for themselves and for the schools they attend. One lesson a week on exam technique and regular practice on previous years’ papers help ensure that these students receive an A* or A grade. This year, entrants in “Other Modern Languages” received the highest proportion of A* grades (38.5%) and A or above (71%) of any subject.
Whatever grade they get, it’s a meaningless qualification for these native speakers. So, who is benefiting from this arrangement? The real beneficiaries are the private schools and the one exam board, PearsonEdexcel, that still offers A-level Chinese. The private schools are gaining an artificial boost to their exam statistics. A few native speakers getting top grades in a language exam helps to raise the schools’ overall A-level grade averages, which sounds good to the fee-paying parents of prospective students.
And PearsonEdexcel’s fee for each person taking A-level Chinese this year was £131.30. If the same number took the exam this year as last year, its gross income for the subject was around £170,000. While there were undoubtedly considerable costs for the company in preparing exam materials and marking, it’s not a bad business to be in.
But this scam is actively damaging the learning of Chinese in Britain. Because so many native speakers are being entered for the A-level by their private schools, the grade boundaries have increased to levels that are impossible for non-native speakers to match, so they are opting not to study it at all. The number of students taking Chinese A-level has plummeted from 3,443 in 2018 to 1,349 in 2022.
The Chinese teachers who are currently coaching native speakers in how to do British exams would much rather be teaching British students, but can’t get the numbers. Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London agrees. “The A Level has been unfit for purpose for at least the last two decades… It is an infamously hard exam,” he says. Brown, along with Tim Clissold (author of the best-selling memoir on Chinese business Mr China), has been attempting to persuade the government and exam boards to create a new qualification, something along the lines of “Chinese civilisation”.
“We have lobbied on multiple occasions in order to get a second, less intimidating A Level. There would need to be teachers trained in it, schools willing to accept it, universities willing to recognise it, etc. That infrastructure would need investment.” But, as Brown ruefully notes: “Despite forever going on about how we need China knowledge and skills, a complaint going back well over a hundred years, this investment has never been forthcoming.”
native speakers of any foreign language shouldn’t be taking it in A level – it pushes up the boundaries for all of them. So many native Spanish speakers and French speakers (especially Spanish) in my daughter’s A Level classes. It’s impossible for the rest to match.
Absolutely right, Anna, but this scam has been willingly countenanced by the education authorities and exam boards here for ages as a way of giving an easy qualification to native speakers of other languages. Look at the exams in South Asian languages, for example: not many non-Urdu/Hindi-speakers taking Urdu or Hindi A-level, I imagine! A rigorous exam suited to non-native-speakers of East and South Asian languages is required, similar to that set for non-native speakers of French or German.
A partial answer would be to divide Chinese A-level into separate syllabuses and exams for native speakers and those learning it as a foreign language. This is done for Welsh in Wales, for example.
As someone who has studied Finnish and Japanese as an adult I wonder how far one can get in learning a hard language on a part-time basis for a couple of years. A Chinese civilisation course sounds like an excellent idea, ir approached in the right way – and not farmed out to Confucius institutes to teach.
It is actually very informative if you meet a candidate who has taken an A level in Chinese or Urdu or Spanish or whatever, while this was their mother tongue.
You gain insight into the character of the candidate, into their degree of cynicism and into their attitude to meaningless credentials.
Probably just what’s wanted in a lot of jobs.
So going by this logic, we should ban all native English students from taking A level English :laughs:
Be fair : the one thing that many (most, innit?) native English speakers are unable to do is to write good English. Or write English well. Or indeed write it well good.
There is a big difference in the content of English compared with that of a foreign language. English at A-level involve complex analysis of literary texts, that is not so for the other languages, which is left to university-level study. Of course, here I am speaking of English literature, I’m not sure why English language is still being taught at A-level, I would have thought that students had a high level of knowledge by GCSE; I’m willing to be corrected by any A-level English teachers on this forum, though.
A-level English language tends to include some elements of sociolinguistics (dialects and varieties of English), psycholinguistics, history of English (from Anglo-saxon), syntax and semantics (beyond what might be covered at GCSE) either as preparation for university or preparation for life. Preparation for life because these studies can help to undermine common linguistic prejudices.
Reading this intellectually arid stream-of-consciousness by an uninformed wannabe influencer, one comes away with just one point: that it’s unfair for native speakers of a language to sit an exam in competition with native speakers. This question has been asked for decades and applies to the teaching of any modern language. It has been dealt with many times by experts; if anyone is interested there was a thorough review in 2017: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/610050/Native_speakers_in_A_level_modern_foreign_languages.pdf
The conclusion was that while a native speaker does have an advantage over a non-native speaker, it is impossible to tell the extent of advantage that the native speaker obtains and that the harm done by banning native speakers would massively outweigh any perceived harm caused by allowing them to take the exams. In any case A-levels are not examinations of a student’s ability to speak or write as a native. A third point is that the native speaker of a non-English language is arguably at a disadvantage in all other subjects, yet this perceived disadvantage is not, and should not, be taken into account.
The other arguments in My Hayton’s pompous drivel (for example that the A-level is a cunning plan by the exam boards to bring in extra cash) are too obviously stupid to need a serious response.
histoly, Flench, Lithmatic, Ratin, Engrish,?
Rand of hope and groly…………..
Yet another social problem that would be solved by instantly closing the private schools. Give the pupils the benefit of a good comprehensive and improve education overall.
How many Chinese speakers do you reckon that policy would produce?
Whilst I would agree with what you say, in theory, I do have a question for you – where are all these good comprehensives which would teach Chinese and which would give children benefits similar to a private education?
It doesn’t work that way. When you ‘equalize’ systems like that it punishes the best and brightest, especially in our current schooling system where teachers have to match the pace of the slowest students in order to pass them. The clever students often get bored and disengaged. It’s demotivating for them that stupid or disruptive children get more attention.
Even if schools were equalized there will always be those that do better, meaning affluent parents would push their children toward those schools.
The Netherlands has a good system where secondary school age children are divided by ability at 11, but have the option to go up or down the tiers later on depending on their grades. The three tiers are vocational, professional, and academic. Trade skills are still highly valued in The Netherlands, so being in the vocational tier doesn’t have the same stigma it would in say, the US or UK.
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