Look who's talking now

Will the Government's plan to teach foreign languages in primary schools revive a passion pour parler that's lacking among teenagers, asks Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

Has the Government's language-teaching strategy got lost in translation? With foreign language take-up among older secondary pupils in free fall, and the promised expansion of languages at primary level little more than a vague political commitment, concerns are being expressed for a generation growing up with little or no knowledge of any language spoken on the other side of the Channel.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Education Select Committee, has identified this as a key component of an inquiry his committee is about to embark upon, into language teaching. "What we seem to have got is the diminution of languages in the secondary sector, without any improvement, yet, in the early stages," he explains.

It became clear last week that, in secondary schools, teenagers are turning their backs on languages. A survey by two leading language-teaching bodies of nearly 800 secondaries found that fewer than one in three schools now requires GCSE-age students to do a foreign language.

From September, the DfES removed the requirement for 15- and 16-year-olds to study a language, allowing schools to introduce foreign language-free timetables for large numbers. This had already been creeping in, as heads unilaterally, and technically illegally, wound down their commitment to language teaching.

"I don't think the Government anticipated anything like this drop," says Linda Parker, director of the Association for Language Learning (ALL), which represents language teachers and which, together with CiLT, the National Centre for Languages, commissioned the survey. "Removing the obligation, after 14, to study a language is restricting children's opportunities."

That view is shared by Judith Edge, head teacher of the Vyne School, in Basingstoke, an oversubscribed mixed comprehensive. Here, 45 per cent of 16-year-olds got five or more good GCSEs last summer, and learning a language is still compulsory for pupils of all ages. "My feeling is that letting schools drop languages is a slippery slope. In a few years, the Government will turn round and say there isn't enough language teaching going on in Years 10 and 11. But by then it'll be very difficult to retrieve."

At St Philomena's Catholic girls' comprehensive in the London borough of Sutton, where 80 per cent of students get five or more A-star to C grades, the head, Jackie Johnson, is even more dismissive of Government policy. "It is small-minded and contradicts the overall literacy agenda. In an increasingly small world, a linguistic skill is a skill for life."

But there are equally persuasive arguments coming from schools where the relaxation of requirements has been welcomed with open arms. At Siddal Moor Sports College, a mixed comprehensive in Rochdale, about half of all students in Years 10 and 11 have now dropped languages altogether. They've opted for a new curriculum mix leading down vocational paths in sport, health and social care, art and design, ICT and engineering.

The head, Helen Freeborn, says the students, and some teachers, breathed a sigh of relief when they dropped French. Too many students just didn't have the skills to make any headway in the language. "To be frank, some were ending up at the end of Year 11 no better at French than they'd been at the start of Year 7. And their teachers had had a nightmare teaching them."

But even where languages are the specialty, teachers are finding a resistance among teenagers. A senior teacher at a language college in Yorkshire tells me that the specialist status has skewed priorities in the school away from "popular" subjects such as history and geography, and towards languages. "But the kids still don't want to do the languages," he explains. "The language department has trouble getting students to fill A-level classes."

With what appears a deeply entrenched indifference to foreign language learning among teenagers, it seems clear there are urgent questions to be addressed for teachers. At Siddal Moor, Freeborn is clear she's going to need fewer language teachers in the future. "Fortunately, we lost one through natural wastage this year, and so didn't find a replacement."

Vyne's head teacher, Edge, feels the development is demoralising for language teachers, and sees the overall pool of qualified and active teachers in the secondary sector declining. "Eventually, it'll hit bright secondary children as well, because the teachers won't be there."

If the total amount of language teaching in secondary schools continues its decline, teacher supply may soon exceed demand. At the very least, secondary teachers may have to refine their skills, away from languages such as German and French, which are declining in popularity, and towards Spanish, which is holding its own, or even with an eye to the future, Chinese.

A more dramatic knock-on effect may be the need for more qualified language teachers to spend all or part of their time in primary schools. The Government's recent five-year education strategy promised that all children, from the age of seven, would by the end of the decade be entitled to learn a foreign language. Currently only a minuscule 3 per cent of primaries in England provide even one 20-minute lesson a week for children in this category, although the Government says there is language teaching in 44 per cent of primaries.

Even though the Teacher Training Agency, guided by the Government, has no plans to retrain secondary language teachers for the primary sector, they are stressing the primary years as an option for linguists attracted to teaching. And, in some cases, new linguist recruits to primary schools will qualify for the same £5,000 golden hello as their secondary counterparts do now.

Parker does applaud some of the recent developments at secondary schools, such as the increasing diversity of languages on offer. However, one future pinch-point she predicts is in the post-19 sector. "Since we are seeing a generation coming through schools with very little language learning, this is going to put pressure on adult education, as people realise, when they get into the employment market, that a language skill is actually something valuable."

The Government doesn't recognise this scenario. In a statement, the DfES maintains that "we look forward to seeing increasing numbers of children choosing to learn a language in the future". Bonne chance! Or should I say, "Mucha suerte"?

education@independent.co.uk

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