Why we offer Mandarin and Spanish, not German and French

Secondary head Chris Woolf explains why he ditched the modern language stalwarts in favour of giving all students the chance to learn Mandarin and Spanish
20th December 2019, 12:04am
Why We No Long Teach French & German
Chris Woolf


Why we offer Mandarin and Spanish, not German and French


It was very quiet. There was no one to talk to. There were no phones to ring. There was no one knocking on the door. Getting in early to make some progress before students and staff arrived for the day was pointless: they wouldn't be here for another nine months. It was June 2015 and I had been appointed founding headteacher of Pinner High School.

Much of the next year was spent making and enacting plans. But foremost in my mind, on those quiet days when the school had not yet come into being, was the curriculum. What should it look like?

A lot of it would be traditional, of course: English, maths, science. However, there was an opportunity to make it a bit more exciting, too. This is how we came to ditch French and German, teaching Mandarin and Spanish to every child in the school instead.

Mandarin teaching has increased over the past 20 years but it is still offered by only a minority of state schools. Even then, it is usually in addition to the more traditional languages. We didn't want it to be an add-on - we wanted it to be the main event.

Meanwhile, the number of students taking Spanish at GCSE has soared, while French has fallen markedly. But trying to counter the former and respond to the latter were not our only drivers.

Governors asked appropriately challenging questions. Why? What's wrong with French and German? Through telling audiences about our language options as I toured local primaries to promote the school, I honed my response. When schools first started teaching modern foreign languages, we looked to our nearest neighbours in Europe for the most useful ones to learn: French and German.

But the world has changed. If we look to the future, we want jobseekers of the 2020s to be equipped for success, and that means a more dynamic approach. Teaching students in an English-speaking school Mandarin and Spanish means that they get to study the top three most widely spoken languages in the world. That must be a good thing.

'Ni hao' and 'hola'

Having settled on Mandarin and Spanish, I had to consider who would be eligible for these languages. This was an easy decision: everyone. We are a truly inclusive school and we believe that everyone can access the same curriculum, given the proper support.

Then I had to actually make it happen. I had expected recruiting Mandarin teachers to be difficult. However, when I advertised, there was a strong field to pick from and we now have brilliant colleagues. Ofsted agreed: we were judged to be "outstanding" in all categories, with the inspectors highlighting in this summer's report that "in Spanish and Mandarin, pupils showed enjoyment and commitment to learning the target language, practising their pronunciation with gusto".

What about the reaction of parents and students? It was warmly welcomed by all. Take-up has been high, with two classes for Mandarin at GCSE.

Local primary schools have also embraced it. Two are enthused by what we are doing and we have seconded our teachers to them for a day a week so that pupils can start learning Mandarin in Year 5. This is really exciting, as the progress a child can make in the language from the age of 9 is fantastic.

Of course, for some students, Mandarin is a real challenge. Having lived in China for five years, I know that learning the language is difficult. But I also know that it is fascinating, engaging and rewarding. A pictographic language also seems to appeal to those who may not wish to study the more familiar romance languages. Connections made with art and maths are really helping our young people to see languages in a new way.

We're now expanding what we do. A group of 40 of us visited Beijing for a week in April. We had fresh snow on the Great Wall, turning a fabulous experience into an utterly magical one. What impressed me about the students' responses in China was not their engagement with the history of the Forbidden City (which was amazing) but the way they wanted to read street signs and decipher characters on manhole covers. This is what brought the language alive for them and allowed them to engage in Mandarin beyond the classroom.

We are also now part of the British Council's Mandarin Excellence Programme. This gives a smaller group of students an additional four hours of Mandarin teaching every week, with the goal of their reaching real proficiency on a much shorter timescale than through a GCSE course. It is a brilliant programme for stretching and inspiring students, and ensuring they are equipped for a future that is changing fast. Much, you might say, like learning Mandarin itself.

Chris Woolf is founding headteacher of Pinner High School in Middlesex

This article originally appeared in the 20/27 December 2019 issue under the headline "Saying 'au revoir' to French and 'auf Wiedersehen' to German"

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