Political and parental pressure is mounting to introduce modern languages into primary schools as the impetus of successful local projects seems likely to overwhelm any objections.
Change is inevitable, even if it means scrapping the five-year moratorium on curriculum innovation, said George Varnava, president of the National Association of Head Teachers. "We cannot afford to wait. We are totally disadvantaged as a nation because of the lack of foreign languages in the curriculum. The Government is damaging the chances of the young people of this generation."
Robert Evans, a former primary school head who is now the Labour MEP for London North West, agrees with Mr Varnava. "We are slipping further and further behind the rest of the European Union," he said. Mr Evans points out that England is virtually the only European country without foreign languages in the primary curriculum.
A Market and Opinion Research Institute poll has shown almost unanimous support from parents for modern languages in primary schools. And the Labour party has pledged to introduce at least one half-hour lesson a week in a modern language for older primary pupils. Now that an estimated 20 per cent of primary schools are offering some sort of foreign language teaching, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority recognises that it could be difficult to stem the tide. SCAA is planning a conference in the autumn to discuss the teaching of modern languages in primary schools. And Dr Nick Tate, SCAA's chief executive, has said that modern languages could be included in a revised primary curriculum, but only when the five-year moratorium expires.
Meanwhile, the Government has made no formal pronouncement on the issue since 1992, when junior minister Nigel Forman told the UK Centre for European Education the Government's "long-term" aim was to introduce modern languages at primary level. Some modern-languages experts also preach caution.
"It must be properly planned, otherwise it will be a failure again," said Christine Wilding, secretary of the Joint Council of Language Associations, referring to the debacle which followed the Nuffield French from Eight project in primary schools in the 1960s. "We know it can be a success, but we need trained teachers, good materials and adequate funding."
She argues that political consensus and a long-term strategy are both essential. If the newly-qualified primary teachers of 2004 are to teach languages, for instance, today's 14-year-olds must take at least one language at GCSE.
Christine Wilding would also like to see a detailed study of modern-language teaching for under-12s in other English-speaking countries.
English schools could have much to learn from the Welsh model, which shows that it is possible to introduce another language from scratch in a comparatively short time. In l990, when Welsh as a second language was first proposed as part of the national curriculum, not one of Gwent's 200 primary schools was teaching Welsh. Yet by September 1996, all children will be learning Welsh from the age of five.
As Gwent is one of the most anglicised areas of Wales, very few teachers spoke any Welsh. Most have now received 30 days' training in language and methodology, staggered over two years. Introduction has been slow and steady, but so far, the results have been encouraging. The emphasis on oral and listening skills helps pupils' development in other areas of the curriculum. Children with special needs have benefited particularly. Ann Jones, the adviser for Welsh in Gwent, explained: "For once, they're starting from the same basis as the others and this gives them more confidence." But she admits that it is very expensive, and has cost Gwent several million pounds.
Primary schools could also learn from best practice in other areas such as Manchester, where l00 primaries teach modern languages, Richmond, where all 32 junior schools teach French, and Surrey, which offers French in around 160 primary schools. Schemes like these are gradually providing a blueprint for success. Teachers are discovering that the benefits for younger pupils include more authentic pronunciation, a faster rate of learning, a greater willingness to use the language spontaneously, and a developing grasp of grammatical concepts.
There are benefits for teachers, too. Anne Farren, head of Richmond's Early Teaching of Modern Languages Project, has found that motivating teachers is not difficult, even though training is in their own time.
The opportunity to visit France and work-shadow teachers is one incentive. Manchester primary teachers have had training on the Continent, paid for by the EC's Lingua programme, as well as in-service training funded by the Goethe Institute and Institut Francais.
Lack of motivation is one problem which has emerged in the Scottish pilot project, which began in 1989. It now involves all Scottish primary schools, which offer one of four languages: French, German, Spanish and Italian. One positive result is that more pupils have gone on to take languages as part of their Standard Grade exams, but there is a downside. "We picked up a sense that primary teachers' interest and enjoyment in the project was waning as the years passed, and some disappointment that their language had not improved more, " says the final report into the pilot.
To motivate pupils, authenticity is seen as essential. Manchester and Richmond schools make good use of foreign assistants, and have also set up exchanges with European schools to allow foreign teachers to visit.
"Because they often meet native-speakers, they can see the point of it all," said Anne Farren, who believes a wide range of activities also helps to sustain children's interest. Drama, mime, singing and games are all included in language lessons in Richmond and Manchester.
The aim in Richmond is to make French part of the school day, not just an artificial "add-on"; the first 20 minutes of the day are usually conducted in French and some staff are planning to teach PE and design and technology in French. For some pupils, Surrey provides intensive days entirely in French on themes such as Christmas or carnival.
Good links with secondary schools are vital. Initially, Richmond secondary teachers were sceptical about the project. They were worried that children taught by non-specialists might get into bad pronunciation habits. "Afterwards, they felt that children who'd done some French already spent less time panicking," said Anne Farren. "They can now accelerate them through the early stages and get them more quickly on to reading and writing."
The Surrey project encourages primary schools to develop joint activities with secondary schools. But the Scottish pilot project has discovered lack of continuity between primary and secondary school - a problem in the independent sector, too - despite the use of secondary teachers to teach some of the younger pupils. The gap is so great that secondary language teachers have been unable to capitalise on the extra knowledge of primary pupils.
The message seems to be that the gains of introducing languages early can be outstanding, but only if done properly.