Teacher’s determination to keep minority languages exams

In a timely reminder as the schools strike today, a passionate languages teacher who was part of a successful campaign to keep lesser-taught languages as part of the GCSE and A Level offering has spoken about how vital it is for foreign-born students to be able sit them.

Polish-born Marzena Henry, MFL and EAL teacher, has been teaching at The Bicester School for 15 years. As well as continuingly going the extra mila (mile) for her languages students, she is also the headteacher of the Polish Saturday School in Oxford.

Marzena Henry
Marzena Henry at The Bicester School and headteacher of the Polish Saturday School in Oxford.

Back in 2015, Marzena, along with many other teachers, was dismayed to hear of government plans to drop GCSE and A Level options in lesser-taught languages. These languages included GCSEs in Dutch, Gujarati, Portuguese, Persian and Turkish; and A Levels in Arabic, Bengali, Dutch, Gujarati, Hebrew, Japanese, Greek, Panjabi, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Urdu and Turkish.

“The government’s reasoning was that these subjects weren’t very popular, but this isn’t true. At that time (2014) 4,498 children took a Polish GCSE for example” [This figure rose to 6,003 entries in 2022].

“I’m very passionate about languages so at this news, myself and other members of the Polish Saturday School in Oxford, as well as the Polish Educational Society in London decided that we’d do everything we can to get in touch with lots of supplementary schools and write a petition and just make sure that it wouldn’t disappear.”Marzena Henry

The petition argued that not only were these language exams still popular, but that the teaching of them wasn’t funded by the public purse. In the majority of cases, as the languages are taught at home and/or in supplementary/after school projects, they are generally community-led and self-funded. This means all the Dept. for Education need provide is the opportunity for young people to have their language skills recognised and accredited through the education system.

“I didn’t for one minute think it would win – at the start I thought, well, that’s it, there won’t be any more options of offering languages to minority students. But wow, I couldn’t believe it, we were actually successful!”Marzena Henry

To a school like The Bicester School, which currently has 155 students on its EAL list the importance of this decision can’t be underestimated.

“In terms of children’s self-development and resilience, it’s very important for them to be able to take exams in their own language. While some may be able to speak and understand day-to-day English, they don’t necessarily read or write it well especially if they join us late with very little English. We’ve recently had students from Afghanistan join us for example. It’s much harder I think for them to learn English than our European students.


“So these students may not be able to do very well in standard GCSEs, even with translation support. If they can sit an exam in their own language which they can do well in, not only does it boost their confidence, but if they decide to go back to their own country they have a certificate which may help them to get a job or a place at university.”

Marzena is very keen to praise The Bicester School (“all the staff including subject teachers, SLT, exams officer and pastoral department- the list is long,” she says) for the support it gives both its minority languages students and EAL department. In July 2021 TBS became an accredited Refugee Welcome School in recognition for their work and support.

“Not all the schools allow students to sit exams in their home languages due to additional cost and workload. We have also many talented bilingual teachers here who give up their time to support our students in lessons and help during speaking exams,”Marzena Henry

This academic year, in addition to the usual French and Spanish, The Bicester School is offering GCSEs in Arabic, Chinese, German, Greek, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Persian and Russian; and A-levels in Italian and Chinese.

The richness of languages currently spoken at the school include Kurdish, Nepali, Tetum, Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Pashto, Persian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Romanian, Polish, German, Russian, Ukrainian, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Lithuanian, Thai, Hungarian, Dutch, Swedish, Italian, Czech, Urdu, French, Spanish, Fijian, Japanese, Korean, Bengali, Malayalam and Greek.

Who is Marzena Henry?

Marzena Henry joined the MFL department first in 2008, then worked in other departments in school and re-joined again in 2015. Marzena studied French and Spanish at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, completing her MA degree in French linguistics in 1996. As well as teaching languages at TBS Marzena is also supporting students for whom English is an additional language and is an accredited examiner for English as a second language CIE.