Foreign language classes for 7-year-olds

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From the age of seven, children will be offered tests in more than 20 foreign languages as part of revolutionary approach to the way the subject is taught. The Government has signed a £7m deal - to be announced tomorrow - with one of the country's leading exam groups to develop the tests.

From the age of seven, children will be offered tests in more than 20 foreign languages as part of revolutionary approach to the way the subject is taught. The Government has signed a £7m deal - to be announced tomorrow - with one of the country's leading exam groups to develop the tests.

As a first step, French, German and Spanish will be on offer from this September, with Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Punjabi and Urdu from September 2005.

By the end of the five-year contract, UCLES (the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate) is charged with developing assessments in 26 languages.

Ministers had been under fire for their decision to scrap compulsory language lessons for pupils aged 14 to 16 from September, and criticised by the UK ambassadors of several European countries, including France and Germany.

But the Government believes the shake-up - with children and adults being graded in their chosen language as they would be for their ability to play a musical instrument - will improve motivation to learn a language, particularly in primary schools, and will lead to thousands more youngsters taking the language up to GCSE-level.

At present, only one in four of the 21,000 primary schools teaches a foreign language. The Government has indicated it wants every child from the age of seven to be able to learn one by the end of the decade.

Barrie Hunt, programme director of the project, said: "Welsh and Irish will follow the first eight languages; the rest will be a mixture of European and community languages. It would be dangerous to say exactly what they will be at present; the situation can change in two or three years with new languages becoming more popular."

The tests mean pupils will be assessed in four main disciplines, speaking, listening, reading and writing. Assessors at each grade will have to satisfy themselves that candidates meet certain criteria. To attain grade five level for speaking, for instance, a candidate will have to give a short prepared talk on a topic of their choice, expressing simple opinions.

There will be 14 grades, with the top one equivalent to the level of the Advanced Extension Award (the world-class tests introduced by Tony Blair to stretch the brightest pupils and help university admissions tutors select the cleverest applicants for their courses). The assessments will cost "a modest fee", but schools and colleges could pay to put people in for them in the same way as they do for GCSEs and A-levels.

The 250-pupil Knotty Ash primary school in Liverpool is renowned for pioneering the type of language initiatives the Government is adopting, holding German lessons for children aged from three in the reception class. Annie Bennett, the headteacher, welcomed the Government's initiative. She said: "It's amazing how quickly they can learn to pick it up. Three-year-olds will learn to mimic you as they learn to speak the language. They're proficient in three languages by the time they leave." Languages become a compulsory part of the curriculum only at the age of 11, and become voluntary at 14 from this September.

UCLES won the contract because of its links with the OCR (Oxford and Cambridge and Royal Society of Art exam board) and Cambridge Esol (English as a second language). Its Esol staff already design assessments for up to 10 million foreign-language speakers to learn English.

European lessons

Britain is alone in only insisting its pupils learn a foreign language from the age of 11 until 14. Most other European countries start languages in their primary schools - with Germans insisting pupils must start learning English by the age of seven or eight. In Spain, pupils must learn a foreign language - also English - at the age of eight, but many begin earlier. In France, it is compulsory to take two foreign languages as part of the baccalaureate. Pupils must start a second language (English) at eight and a third (Spanish, German or Italian) at ten. In the Netherlands it is obligatory to learn English between the ages of ten and 18. In Italy, children have to learn a language from eight until 18.

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