PRIMARY pupils are to have their modern language skills assessed before they start secondary school under government plans to be published before Christmas.
Education junior minister Baroness Catherine Ashton told MPs that the national languages strategy document would propose that pupils in their final primary year could have the option of being graded in a modern foreign language, and that this information should be passed to their secondary school.
The lack of information at transition to secondary was partly to blame for the failure of the last major attempt to introduce primary languages in the late 1960s. The secondaries were said to have duplicated work done in primaries.
Teachers in secondary schools also failed to adjust for the fact that pupils had learnt French before. By the age of 16 no difference was detected between pupils who had started French at 8 and those who began at 11.
Baroness Ashton said that the strategy would aim to offer the option of languages from the age of seven upwards. It had earlier been suggested that all primary pupils would study them.
Her comments were made as she was questioned this week by the Commons education select committee. She said that the Government wanted every school to offer at least one European Union language in addition to English, but that some would also be encouraged to offer a "community language", such as Urdu and Hindi. "We have children who are bilingual and trilingual, who we consider to be a problem rather than an asset," she said. "I'm keen to know how we can see them as a strength."
Sources at the Department for Education and Skills say that the strategy document will propose a "ladder of achievement" - an asssessment system that recog-nises steps towards proficiency. This follows suggestions by Baroness Ashton this January that pupils could receive grades for languages similar to those for music.
The report is also expected to propose that hundreds of language assistants from France, Spain and Germany be hired to give language lessons to primary pupils, using cash earmarked for the 50,000 extra classroom assistants.
However, the question of how much language teaching should be available for older teenagers - who will soon be able to drop languages at the age of 14 - is expected to be side-stepped. It will feature instead in the Government's paper on 14 - 19 education, which is due to be published at the end of January.
A TES poll last month found that half of England's secondary schools are poised to let pupils drop languages at 14, if the Government makes them optional. The Office for Standards in Education estimated that in 20001, one in 10 schools no longer offered the prescribed range of subjects for 14 to 16-year-olds.
LANGUAGES: A LOW PRIORITY
* Only about 21 per cent of primary schools offer some form of language teaching
* The most frequently cited reason schools stop teaching modern languages is that fulfilling the statutory requirements of the national curriculum is a higher priority
* The time allocated to language teaching increases through the primary years, reaching an average peak of one hour a week in independent schools and 45 minutes in state schools
* Most of those teaching languages do not have languages as their main responsibility
* The most frequently taught languages in primary schools are, in order: French, German, Spanish, and Italian
* Many primaries have no link with their local secondaries for language teaching Source: Findings from the most recent QCA report (2000) on the language teaching available to key stage 2 pupils (seven to 11-year-olds).