Leading article: Lost in the translation

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The Independent Online

It is impossible to be against the Government's latest initiative to encourage more co-operation between schools in the United Kingdom and those abroad, whereby every school in this country will be asked to twin with one in a foreign country.

It is impossible to be against the Government's latest initiative to encourage more co-operation between schools in the United Kingdom and those abroad, whereby every school in this country will be asked to twin with one in a foreign country. Video-conferencing links between pupils and regular exchange trips will help to foster more global understanding and are a welcome sign of a more internationalist approach at the Department for Education and Skills.

That said, the new plan is no substitute for a coherent national policy towards modern foreign-language teaching. The list of 31 countries that have put their names forward as potential twinning partners contains several English-speaking ones. While we do not doubt the cultural and political value in establishing links with American and Irish schools, they will obviously not help to solve the crisis in language teaching in the nation's schools.

A report this month from the Centre for Information on Language Teaching showed that two-thirds of state schools had dropped compulsory language teaching for 14- to 16-year-olds. This is a direct result of ministers' decision to make learning a language voluntary from the age of 14 onwards.

The Government is trying to rectify its mistake in allowing schools to do this by trying to encourage more primary schools to offer foreign languages. French, German or Spanish are the most likely candidates. There are signs that this is beginning to work. Forty-three per cent of primary schools are now offering pupils a second language compared with just one in five three years ago. In addition, ministers are piloting a new language qualification that will see the subject treated like music, so that people of all ages can start studying a foreign language and earn a grade in it.

The plan is to give every child the right from the age of seven to study a foreign language. That commitment is designed to be in place by the end of the decade. Ministers believe that the higher take-up of languages at primary-school level will stimulate interest and lead to more pupils persevering with languages to GCSE and A-level. It would, of course, have been better to have stimulated the interest in the primary sector first before removing the subject from the compulsory national curriculum for 14- to 16-year-olds. That way, we would have avoided at least eight or nine years of languages being in the doldrums before the first enthusiastic seven-year-olds are ready to take their GCSEs.

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