Young children may be receptive to languages, but until last year, language teaching in primary schools was a matter of luck. The right head and the right teachers meant that some schools were teaching French, German and Spanish, but, for most, languages were something to be left to GCSEs.
All that changed last March, when the Dearing Report recommended that all primary schools should be teaching a modern foreign language by September 2009. Now, it is policy, and primary schools are racing to catch up.
With the deadline to lay on a foreign language at Key Stage 2 just 18 months away, schools have already made dramatic progress. In 2002, 44 per cent offered language teaching, now 70 per cent do, and the Government has given £35m to help schools reach the target.
Still, some heads will be left scratching their heads. How can primaries teach languages without a specialist? Some are turning to independent consultants for advice and materials. But government funding has already made cash available through the National Centre for Languages (Cilt), which co-ordinates the National Advisory Centre on Early Languages Learning.
With guidance and resources online and a plethora of training opportunities, Cilt is confident that all British primary schools will soon be up to scratch.
"The 2009 deadline is absolutely realisable," says Carmel O'Hagan, from Cilt. "There's significant funding going into primary languages and a huge amount of support."
Already, teachers can find lesson plans in French, Spanish and German online, and Cilt is developing a comprehensive programme for primary teachers that will be available later this year.
O'Hagan says that teachers do not need a languages degree. Family connections and even trips abroad can provide a base for the British Council-funded, two-week immersion course in France or Germany.
Despite early concerns, O'Hagan says primary teachers are now more confident. "We're changing hearts and minds. The enthusiasm from teachers, heads and secondary language teachers is a massive step forward."
The message from Cilt and the Government is that non-specialists can teach languages. "There are large numbers of schools where there are no specialists," says Lorna Harvey, an adviser at Staffordshire County Council. "We are trying to encourage and support non-specialists in languages as they are actually specialists in terms of primary practice."
Some local authorities have moved over entirely to non-specialist teachers, as in Liverpool. Many primary schools are working with the country's 223 specialist language colleges to develop materials.
And government-funded partnerships allow primaries outside specialist-language-college catchment areas to band together to develop curricula and tools. The Sunderland Partnership, funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, has brought together seven schools, the independent Sunderland High School, the specialist language college St Aidan's, and five primaries to develop materials and, perhaps most importantly, a French pronunciation CD, so that all teachers can teach languages, not just at Key Stage 2, but in Years one and two as well.
"We've developed a complete kit," says Janet Holyoak, responsible for MFL at Newbottle Primary School. "Any teacher within the school can now use it without external training,"
Schools, or even parents, concerned about meeting the 2009 deadline should contact their local council's language adviser. Councils are approaching the challenge in different ways, although most, like the Sunderland Partnership and Cilt, are focusing on primary teachers learning to teach languages rather than parachuting in peripatetic teachers or experts.
"I want primary school teachers delivering it," says Geoffrey Roberts, schools adviser (modern languages) at Oxfordshire County Council. "That's the only way it's going to become embedded in the curriculum." As Roberts acknowledges, most of these teachers are going to need not just internet resources, but training. Oxfordshire offers six-week courses for primary teachers. "The big issue is confidence and the ability to deliver," says Roberts. "You can't train people through a website."
Local courses can bring impressive results. Many primary teachers are, understandably, anxious about languages, seeing them as a speciality similar to something like music. But with so many resources available, and with the right preparation primary teachers should have little to worry about. Instead of seeing languages as another burden on their time, many welcome another string to their bow. "Many are anxious at first," says Lorna Harvey at Staffordshire County Council. "But when they have started they are very positive and enjoy the experience."