Foreign language teaching is in decline

Inquiry reveals fall in number of trainee teachers specialising in languages
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A dearth of trainee modern foreign language teachers is hampering a Government drive to ensure all children start learning another language from the age of seven.

New figures disclosed to The Independent show a drop in the number of trainee primary school teachers specialising in languages. The number has fallen from 710 to 560 in two years – despite next year's Government deadline for making the subject compulsory for seven- to 11-year-olds.

In secondary schools the numbers fell by 290 to 1,800 over the same period. A Government inquiry headed by former chief schools inspector Sir Jim Rose called for the subject to be introduced into the timetable in 2011.

"When ministers dropped the compulsory study of language up to age 16 a few years ago, the other half of the deal was improved provision in primary schools," said Michael Gove, the Conservatives' education spokesman.

"But these figures show that the number of trainee primary teachers with a specialism in languages is actually falling, as is the number of language specialists overall.

"For all the Government's promise of improving modern foreign languages, in reality things are going in the wrong direction."

A briefing note for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers also reveals that primary schools are having to resort to a range of measures to ensure they can teach languages.

These include bringing in parents with a language skill to teach and using existing staff who might have a smattering of knowledge of a language.

As a result, the languages from which a school might choose – which range from the traditional European diet of French, German and Spanish to languages like Japanese and Urdu – often depend on which ones its existing staff can speak. The result makes it difficult to provide continuity between primary and secondary schooling.

Most of the primary school curriculum is delivered orally rather than through written work, the document reveals.

Sir Jim's report recommends that only one or two languages should be taught and that these should fit in with what is offered by local secondary schools.

Many primary schools would prefer to offer a diet of several languages, albeit taught in not so much depth, on the grounds that it would increase pupils' enthusiasm for the subject. It would also be easier to teach them without trained languages staff.

Since the subject became voluntary for 14- to 16-year-olds, there has been a dramatic decline in the take-up of languages at GCSE level, with the numbers opting for French and German halving over a decade.

Research has shown there is a class divide in those schools which offer them as a GCSE option, with independent and selective state schools still likely to offer languages to all pupils but some comprehensive in disadvantaged areas dropping the subjects altogether.

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said the language teacher figures had to be "taken in context", adding that there were only 50 vacancies for secondary languages in January.

"There's no point in recruiting the same numbers of language teachers if there are no jobs for them to fill, if retention rates are good and if the secondary population is falling," he said.