National

New reforms threaten future of Japanese language study in England

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo

Teachers in England are concerned the study of Japanese in their country could be severely undermined in light of plans to scrap one of the most important exams in the subject.

From 2017, education firm Pearson is planning to scrap A and A-S levels in Japanese, due to new requirements that the exam be redeveloped, although discussions are still ongoing with the Department for Education to find a way to save the qualification.

Over 3,500 people have signed a petition calling for the exam to be retained, arguing that removing the only qualification in Japanese for 16- to 18-year-olds is likely to reduce the incentive for younger students to take up the language in the first place.

“I’m devastated. This is a genuinely retrograde step,” said Andrew Hunt, head of languages at Whitgift School, Croydon.

Referring to the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams normally sat by those aged 15 and 16, he said, “It will probably have an impact on our GCSE Japanese take-up in the medium term, and in the long term the lack of progression may put off pupils from choosing to start learning the language at all, which would be very sad.

“Currently a large number of our pupils benefit from the opportunity to gain fluency in Japanese and also take part in a cultural exchange with our partner school in Saitama Prefecture.”

In 2014, there were 260 candidates for the A-level, which attracts native Japanese speakers who want to validate their proficiency according to English standards.

A-level Japanese is almost exclusively studied in England, although occasionally a few students in Wales will also sit the exam. Scotland has no similar qualifications in Japanese.

For the A-S level, which is effectively half of an A-level and is taken in the first year of the two-year A-level course, there were 291 candidates last year, while around 1,100 students take GCSE Japanese each year in Britain.

“Each year, I have students who would like to carry on Japanese at university level and, for them, the A-level is very important,” said Sachiko Yamaguchi, who teaches at Aquinas College, Sheffield.

The current Japanese A-level is considered to be traditional and demanding. It comprises reading comprehension, translation and essay writing. However, the exam does not test either speaking or listening skills.

Regulators want to standardize all language A-levels and bring them into line with the French and German exams, which have equal components of speaking, listening, reading and writing.

Exam providers like Pearson have decided to scrap A-levels in several languages less popular among students because they feel they and the schools do not have the resources to redevelop the exams along the lines required by regulators.

Insisting on tests for speaking and listening will inevitably require more classroom preparation, resources and manpower, they claim.

Redeveloped exams could also put off native speakers of minority languages from taking the A-level, as many of them prefer to attend informal Saturday schools rather than formal lessons, they say.

As a result, a total of 13 lesser-taught language A-levels — including Polish, Turkish and Arabic — are being ditched, leaving only six: French, German, Spanish, Italian, Chinese and Russian.

“It’s shocking,” Hunt said. “England is going to lose two-thirds of its language A-levels. We are getting mixed messages from, on the one hand, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which says we need more speakers of minority languages, and then these decisions by the privatized exam boards. The government should be subsidizing the exams.”

Hunt said he would welcome a redeveloped Japanese A-level but argues the existing exam already “stretches” students and is “academically rigorous.”

A Pearson spokesman said, “We are continuing to talk to Ofqual (The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) and the Department for Education about the available options for securing the future of our A-level qualifications in Japanese from September 2017.

“We believe that all parties should work together in the interests of those learners who want to secure these important qualifications,” the spokesman said.