Teacher training: Why it pays to say 'oui' to languages

It's tough to attract new teachers to modern languages. But, says Emma Haughton, the situation should improve with the financial carrots on offer to those training in shortage subjects
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The Independent Online

While applications for teacher training saw an overall 5 per cent rise last year – increasing for the second year in succession – those in shortage areas such as maths, English, science, modern languages, design and technology, and ICT still saw a shortfall. Tackling these shortages is one of the major challenges for the Teacher Training Agency (TTA).

Modern languages is proving a particularly difficult nut to crack. Last year, 82 per cent of targeted places for trainee teachers were filled, and although this represents a 1 per cent rise on the previous year, it is not enough, says Mary Doherty, the head of teacher supply and recruitment at the TTA. "The situation is improving, but not fast enough, especially as competition for foreign-language graduates is also increasing," she says. "Language graduates are highly sought after – we don't produce enough for any area, let alone teaching. There are so many other seductive options for language graduates, who usually want to travel and use the language, and schools can only provide limited opportunities. We need to recognise the intense degree of competition we face."

Many schools are suffering acute problems with recruitment and retention of language teachers, according to Norbert Pachler, the subject leader for modern foreign languages at the Institute of Education in London. "Forty to 50 per cent of our foreign language teachers are non-native speakers of English. They're trained teachers, but they have trained abroad and have very little understanding and knowledge of British schools and the National Curriculum. We've got people at the front of the classroom, but it isn't solving the problem of the quality of teaching, nor of retention – they often leave after two or three years because they can't cope, because they're ill prepared for the challenges of our system," Mr Pachler says.

Teacher training institutions are also having to be a lot more creative in meeting their targets, according to Terry Ward, the PGSE course co-ordinator at the University of Portsmouth. "We are hitting our target, but we are having to compromise on quality," he admits. "There just aren't enough graduates coming through the system. Whereas we used to consider only people with a 2:1, now we think about people with other backgrounds and go elsewhere, such as France, to attract students."

Meanwhile, the jury is still out on the potential impact of the recently published education Green Paper, which will make it no longer compulsory for pupils to continue with a foreign language after the age of 14. Mr Pachler is particularly concerned about this. "We have a very bad situation as it is, but once the new changes come in it will be much worse, as the progression to A-level and degree is simply not going to be there any more.

"In the short term it will mean that we need fewer teachers, but in the long term it will exacerbate the situation. We already have modern languages departments in higher education threatened with closure because there aren't enough students choosing to do languages at degree level. It may be a good strategy for the Government to solve the teaching crisis, but it does nothing for the status of languages in this country," Mr Pachler says.

Ms Doherty disagrees, arguing that making languages voluntary at GCSE level will actually enhance the experience for those choosing them. "I am excited about the Green Paper," she says. "At the moment everyone has to do a language at 14 whether they want to or not, and this means large classes. Having fewer pupils, however, won't mean a reduction in the demand for language teachers – you need one teacher for 30 pupils, but you still need one teacher for 22. Nor do I think it will diminish the pool going on to A-level and beyond – I hope it will have a positive impact, in that pupils will be studying with other language enthusiasts and gain from that."

She is also optimistic about the effects of the TTA's Graduate Teacher Programme, which aims to bring in those from other professions who don't want to take the standard PGCE. This programme saw another 1,290 people start training in schools – a 7 per cent rise on the previous year. "This is an important route for modern foreign languages," says Ms Doherty. "Very often languages graduates want to get a job where they can travel and use their language, but they might want later to settle down, make a career change and look at teaching. This gives them a direct way in."

The TTA is also working with Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT) and the Central Bureau on a scheme to bring European residents to train as teachers in Britain. The scheme will also be open to foreign nationals already resident here. "Another source is the large number of foreign-language assistants who come here for a year and want to stay and become teachers," Ms Doherty says.

In addition, the TTA is looking at developing support courses to help existing language graduates get up to speed in a second foreign language. In order to have a full timetable, secondary schools need teachers with two languages, but the number of people taking two languages at degree level is falling – students often want to combine one language with another subject, such as business studies.

On top of these schemes, a number of financial carrots are dangling in front of those considering training as foreign-language teachers, or in one of the other shortage areas. The £6,000 training bursary gives students the equivalent of £150 a week during the PGCE, and there is an additional "golden hello" of £4,000 for those who successfully complete induction within five years and go on to work in a relevant post in the maintained sector.

The Government is also about to pilot a student-loan repayment scheme for new teachers. Those starting work in teaching between September this year and August 2005 should be eligible for repayment of any loans taken out with the Student Loans Company. They will have the loan paid off over a period of five to 10 years, with the amount increasing the longer they stay in the job.