"Are you a radiator or a drain?" In other words, does your department emit warmth or do you sap your headteacher's energy? This is how Sue Kirkham, president of the Association of School and College Leaders, concluded the opening plenary of Language World, the annual Association for Language Learning conference which recently took place at the University of Manchester.
"You must sell the importance of language learning to everyone - learners, senior staff, parents and the wider community. Become a radiator," she exhorted delegates.
Generating not only support, but involvement too was a recurrent theme at this year's conference, entitled Working Together. Lid King, National Director for Languages, believes it is fundamental to the success of the national strategy. He cited key stage 2 as an example because, while primary languages are taking off, the full benefit will only be felt if local authorities, schools, higher education institutions and key partners pull together.
HMI Anne Feltham reinforced the point when she reported on an Ofsted inspection of 10 local authority KS2 language Pathfinders. Encouraging findings included rapid expansion, widespread enthusiasm and a high percentage of good and very good provision. However, progression remains a challenge and few secondary schools are building on prior learning.
The other key challenge is to arrest the drift at KS4 and beyond. Despite gloomy headlines, positive steps are being taken with new qualifications, courses and modes of delivery. This was reflected in the seminar programme.
From podcasting and blogging to capitalising on the motivational pull of the World Cup, there was no shortage of inspirational ideas and practical advice.
The City of Wolverhampton College demonstrated how integrating languages with a vocational subject can rekindle interest, while winners of European Awards for Languages were living proof that collaboration between sectors and with business can have tremendous impact. Other workshops focused on learning strategies, homework, assessment for learning and a lot more besides.
The exhibition is the other attraction of the conference as it offers the chance to examine new materials and try out the latest digital resources.
Equally important is the opportunity to network with colleagues from other sectors and different parts of the country. Whether they fire you with enthusiasm or commiserate with your problems, it is great to know that you are not alone.
In a similar vein, three ALL presidents put current concerns in perspective in their closing address, with a lighthearted look at language teaching in days gone by. Some observations had a familiar ring, such as the view expressed by a 19th-century teacher that learning a language serves little purpose when "everyone in the civilised world speaks English," and when modern languages have been in crisis many times over the years. As Pangloss famously says in Voltaire's novel Candide: "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."
* The next Language World takes place March 30-31, 2007, at the Examination Schools, University of Oxford * Anne Feltham's report: www.ofsted.gov.ukpublicationsindex.cfm?fuseaction=pubs.displayfileid=394 8type=pdf