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Passports to a wider world

Our children must be encouraged early on to overcome traditional British reluctance to learn foreign languages, argues George Varnava. At a recent international conference, a German delegate revealed: "When we identify children with learning difficulties we give them extra tuition in a foreign language, because they won't get a job in Germany."

Across Europe and indeed among all developed countries, there are clearly marked differences between attitudes to learning a second language. Perceptions of its importance, value and accessibility vary among non-English-speaking nations but differ dramatically from those common in the United Kingdom. The TES has featured a number of examples of interesting new practice in the field of language teaching yet these are still exceptions, confirming the more general resistance to moving foreign languages higher up the curricular priority list. The front-page story headed: "Parents press for primary languages"(TES, November 11) adds a new aspect. Given the Government's repeated insistence on the importance of parental opinion, this will, I hope, stimulate action.

Knowledge of a second language, at any level of competence, is a personal asset. It facilitates, it enhances, it increases self-confidence, it provides vocational opportunities and, cumulatively, represents an extra dimension to one's personality.

In the reforming euphoria of 1989, the education minister Angela Rumbold announced the formation of a national curriculum working group for modern foreign languages, declaiming: "It is vitally important that we improve the nation's skills in modern foreign languages - both European and non-European languages . . . The national curriculum will mean all pupils doing at least one foreign language right up to age 16. . . There will be a much greater demand for better skills in modern foreign languages. They are assets to be developed and put to use by pupils at work and in their personal lives, at home and abroad." Sad, therefore, that the July 1994 Orders "which free up the statutory national curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds" reflect a changed attitude and "suspend the requirement for pupils entering key stage 4 in 199596 to study a modern foreign language".

The reason most frequently offered for national resistance to language learning is the worldwide dominance of English. A poor excuse, of course: are we really content to shut ourselves off from other cultures because we undervalue the most effective route to them? Our linguistic performance is poor by comparison with most other developed countries. That is generally acknowledged. The difference is not, however, just a consequence of an international preference for English: the place of the foreign language in the curriculum is the crucial factor. Apart from the United Kingdom, every member state of the European Union provides foreign language teaching to pupils before the age of 11.

The prospect of languages in the primary school arouses a good deal of professional opposition in this country. The "failure" of the Primary French Project (1963-1974) is still offered as dire warning to new pioneers, as if the world hadn't changed in a quarter of a century. Understandably, there is justifiable caution in the face of curriculum overload but here, too, there are enough examples of exciting and successful practice to prove that not only is foreign language teaching possible in primary schools: for many it is considered essential. Primarysecondary continuity need not be a problem. Where regional policies have been formulated - most recently in Richmond and East Sussex, for example - continuity can be assured. In any case, teaching and learning for young children need not be organised in an academic or "linear" framework: contact with a second language is a worthwhile objective in itself. There is no doubt, furthermore, that learning a second language improves achievement in other areas of the curriculum, most noticeably in the first language. Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, might well find a useful spur here, given that one of her priorities is "to raise standards, particularly in English".

The teaching profession derives some comfort from Sir Ron Dearing's recommendation and Gillian Shephard's acceptance of a five-year period of stability. But how do you stabilise confusion? Reform has brought more than enough disruption and the service needs a breathing space. It would be naive, however, to assume that stability means no change. Education cannot just be shaped by the past: it is much more concerned with progress into the future. National progress can only be achieved in relation to the international community. Our generation was raised on the proposition that "no man is an island"; for today's youth, no island is an island.

Foreign language learning in the primary sector is alive, well and thriving. At its national conference in May 1992 the National Association of Head Teachers gave a clear lead when it adopted the following resolution: "Given the agreement among member states of the European Community that competence in at least one modern foreign language is an essential feature of a Single Market, conference calls upon this Government to promote and support the following: 1 progress towards the introduction of foreign language learning before the age of eleven; 2 increased provision of foreign language assistants to facilitate the introduction of foreign language teaching into primary schools; 3 the requirement of a foreign language qualification as a condition of qualified teacher status; 4 a major programme to train teachers of foreign languages.

The joint NAHTALL (Association for Language Learning) conference in November 1992 endorsed this resolution, formulating new pre-11 policy that "strongly supports an early start to the study of modern foreign languages". Kathryn Ellis's study The teaching of modern languages in primary schools - its availability in Britain and France (April, 1993, The University of Huddersfield) concludes: "In England and Wales there is a huge need for national co-ordination of a scheme and definitive legislation. Parental support is there but often only those in the upper income bracket can take advantage of the schemes available. The success of modern foreign languages in the independent sector where they are commonly taught from nine is also further proof that there is a valid case".

There is an urgent need for more accurate information on the scale of actual provision. Thankfully, the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT) is currently undertaking a survey in maintained schools and expects to report early in 1995.

The European Commission's Socrates programme, also due in 1995, will bring new encouragement and cash for schools and children in the UK. It will represent international support for the installation of a European dimension in education and provide the impetus for second language learning. Routine knowledge of a second language has not yet become the norm in this country as it certainly is in the rest of Europe and most other developed nations. For obvious educational, commercial and social reasons our neglect leaves us at a serious disadvantage.

The UK must be one of the most multinational places in the world, with a high proportion of "bi-cultural" individuals among its population. The national ethnic profile is not specifically European; it provides a rich, wide, varied linguistic and cultural environment from which all children should benefit, not in accordance with the political ideology of "competitiveness" but more by collaboration, understanding and mutual respect.

The present generation of children must have a way into participating in European and wider international affairs. They will need to think international and function accordingly. We, in schools, can provide the linguistic vehicle they will need. There is much more progress still to be made, of course. Above all, a sound political commitment to bringing the education service into the 21st global century is urgently needed. When I asked a French headteacher what he was doing to introduce a European dimension into the curriculum, he replied: "Nothing; we are already in Europe."

George Varnava, head of Norwood School in south-east London, is vice-president of the National Association of Head Teachers.

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