How do we persuade young people that studying a language is a good career move? Some schools are turning to vocational courses for the answer, in the hope of inspiring interest with the language of the workplace. These are usually introduced in Years 9, 10 or 12, but two schools in the Black Country are preparing a bold experiment. Next September they will pilot the Certificate of Business Language Competence (CBLC) with Year 7.
But are 11-year-olds likely to be switched on by the global world of trade? "Absolutely," says Dr Henriette Harnisch, director of the Black Country Pathfinder for 14-19 Networks for Excellence. To back up her view, she cites the response of young learners who trialled one of the pathfinder's resources, an interactive CD-Rom charting the adventures of a student on a two-week work placement. "As beginners, they found some of the tasks a little difficult, but they were very excited by the context," she says.
"Typical comments were, 'Oh yes, I can see why learning a language is useful whatever job you do.' Which is exactly the message we want to get across."
The Year 7 pilot is one of many initiatives, large and small, which the pathfinder has instigated or supported since it launched in 2002 with a double brief: to raise the profile of languages as an economic skill with all stakeholders; and to increase participation and improve attainment in the 14-19 age range. It was a pretty tall order, all the more so as only two years later languages disappeared from the post-14 compulsory curriculum. The region suffered as badly as any other from the fall-out, with one significant difference: while GCSE entries fell by around 850 last year, almost 700 students were engaged in vocational language learning.
These encouraging figures are due in no small measure to extensive collaborative partnerships involving schools, further education colleges, employers and training providers, as well as umbrella organisations such as local education authorities and the Black Country Learning and Skills Council. Promotional activities have also played their part and the CD-Rom is one of several resources highlighting the role of languages in business.
Another key strategy has been to identify existing expertise and innovative practice, and broaden their scope. For example, when a school in Walsall introduced a post-16 foreign exchange incorporating work experience, it didn't stop there. "It seemed such a good idea, we gave them funding to see if we could extend it beyond a single school and build up a programme. And that's what happened," says Dr Harnisch.
Underpinning these developments lie new curriculum models rooting language learning in a variety of vocational contexts. CBLC accreditation was chosen for its flexibility, clear progression routes and currency with employers.
Finance was another consideration for, although more expensive than GCSE, it costs less than National Vocational Qualifications language units. And finally workload, for where portfolio-based NVQ units make heavy demands on teacher time, the CBLC is modular with exams at the end of every stage.
Selecting the qualification was only the start and "off-the-shelf"
resources have been created to support it. These have proved hugely popular, not only locally, but throughout the country. The same is true of training courses, which attract recruits from far and wide. For the very flexibility that makes the CBLC so attractive can appear daunting, especially to younger teachers, whose careers have evolved in the shadow of a highly prescriptive curriculum. "We didn't want to say, 'Here is an idea.
Try it out and see how you go.' We wanted to build a support system," Dr Harnisch explains. "So we have brought in experts familiar with the qualification together with practising teachers, who explain step-by-step how they teach certain points or plan their schemes of work. Teachers find this very valuable."
Equally valuable has been the establishment of a regional centre. Training teachers as examiners not only helps to keep down costs, it has a positive spin-off in the classroom. Once again, the pathfinder has made ripples beyond the immediate locality and schools in other parts of the country have expressed an interest in replicating the model. "Sustainability and replicability have been key concerns from the start," she says. "We were very aware that funding would not last forever and wanted to make sure it didn't just trickle away."
Another priority has been to help teachers introduce the CBLC in a range of situations. "We did not want it to end up as the preserve of low ability Year 10," she explains. "We looked at various possibilities, such as fast-tracking gifted and talented, third language option for dual linguists and low achievers in Year 9. These are very different delivery models, which allow people to pick and choose whatever suits their circumstances."
It has also breathed new life into languages in further education colleges, where they were quietly dying away. "We have established increasingly solid programmes where full-time students study a language as a compulsory part of their training. It might be Punjabi as part of health and social care or Italian with travel and tourism, or French with business. So it is being embedded, which is very important," she says.
Schools are also receiving support to offer new opportunities in the sixth form. One of these is Ellowes Hall School in Dudley, where Mandarin Chinese has been integrated into the post-16 business studies curriculum. Not only has enrolment increased from four in the first year to 20 this year, it has made an impact beyond the modern languages classroom. According to the head of business studies, around 80 per cent of the latest intake are thinking of going on to university, compared with one student in last year's class.
"That is the bigger picture. It is to do with aspirations and all the other things that come with language learning," she says, adding that the headteacher is now hoping to build on the initiative to reinvigorate European languages.
The Year 9 watershed is another key area where things are beginning to shift. A striking example is Deansfield High School in Wolverhampton, which embarked on a joint media project with Creative Partnerships, culminating in a trip to Barcelona University. Postcards written by the students reflect how enriching they found this experience and their delight on discovering that they could "actually talk to real people". Recruitment into key stage 4 Spanish has gone up by 40 per cent as a result.
Other statistics paint a similar picture, not least the number of CBLC activity books distributed to Black Country schools: 4,000 at the latest count. Some of these are being used by double linguists, but the vast majority are re-engaging learners who would otherwise have turned their back on languages. "I get excited every time I think about it," says Dr Harnisch. "We have not found the panacea but we must be on to something."
* CBLC qualification
You can find out about training courses and access free online resources on the Black Country Pathfinder website, which also contains a catalogue of published materials for sale. These include CBLC Teacher Packs and Student Activity Books from entry level to level 2 in French, Spanish and German, and up to level 1 in Italian. Entry level Russian is also available.
Alternatively, contact Dr Henriette Harnisch, tel: 01902 824414.