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Primary languages back in the balance

Colin Richards is emeritus professor of education at St Martin's College, Lancaster

In 1974, after a lengthy evaluation of the introduction of modern foreign languages in primary schools, the late Clare Burstall wrote Primary French in the Balance and found the practice wanting. For once, the findings of education research were acted on and French disappeared from primaries in all but a few local authorities.

More than 30 years later Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, has said modern languages are to be re-introduced to all primary schools in England from about 2010, the possible date for the next round of national curriculum revision. He claims, somewhat fatuously, that this will "encourage a renaissance in languages in schools and beyond". A famous scholar has described the Renaissance as "a convenient, resounding and myth-making word" which "simplifies, misleads and demands discussion". So does the Secretary of State's proposal.

The proposal should be an improvement on the Government's previous (and unworkable) promise of an entitlement to a modern language, but the lessons of that first experiment must be learnt. There needs to be a progressive programme of work for the period of compulsory teaching (age 7-14).

At the very least, there needs to be a corresponding reduction in the requirements of the revised national curriculum to accommodate compulsory teaching of languages. Also needed is a sensitively devised assessment system focused on the attainment of individual children and not "grossed up" to provide yet more school-based performance data to put in league tables. There has to be a huge programme of professional development. Most importantly, there must be a guaranteed continuity of teaching across the primary-secondary divide so that pupils do not stop learning one language at 11 to start another; or, worse, begin again in Year 7 to study the language they have already studied in primary school.

This initiative could become the touchstone by which the Government's commitment to personalised learning is judged. But there is another lesson to learn from the past, and in particular from Ms Burstall: the need for an independent agency to evaluate the pilot development before the initiative is rolled out. 2010 is only three years away. There may not be time to conduct that thorough evaluation, and 2010 may have to be changed to 2012 or 2013. Modern languages in primary schools will need to be weighed in the balance once more, and let us hope there will be a more positive outcome this time. We need to avoid a sense of dej... vu.

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