Leading article: Policy mustn't get lost in translation

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The Independent Online

The Government deserves some credit for its drive to improve language teaching in primary schools. It is certainly right to support Lord Dearing's recommendation that foreign languages should be a compulsory part of the curriculum from the age of seven. However, some worrying evidence emerged at last week's Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference that new primary teachers may not be adequately trained for the job.

As a result, a motion was passed saying that primary teachers should not be compelled to teach the subject if they do not feel well enough trained for the task. According to one ATL representative, as little as three weeks' language training could be on offer to some teachers.

The Government's answer to this is to earmark £50m a year for the training of primary school teachers. Two thousand have already been trained since the policy of improving language teaching in primary schools was launched three years ago and a further 1,000 a year will be trained until the end of the decade.

While welcome, this training provision is not enough to cope with 24,000 primary schools seeking to ensure that all seven-year-olds learn a language. In addition, the amount of training will vary and will depend on what individual schools and local authorities believe is necessary. That is a little half-hearted.

We need more guidance from the Department for Education and Skills as to what the appropriate level of training for a primary school teacher should be. We need - and presumably will get - some guidance from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the body responsible for the national curriculum, as to what targets primary schools should have for language learning. Otherwise, we will still have the situation where children arrive in secondary school with their teachers not having a clue as to their level of knowledge in foreign languages.

A policy that could make such a difference to language learning in this country must not go off at half cock. Education Secretary Alan Johnson has faced up to the deficiencies of previous policy on languages and tried to rectify them through Dearing. We need to be careful about the planning of this new initiative to ensure it succeeds.