'Rescuing and reviving the curriculum is not enough to restore modern foreign languages to their rightful position'

It's not enough to grandstand the fact that languages have been introduced at primary school and leave it at that, writes this veteran journalist

Richard Garner

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I can remember my first German lesson at school only too clearly.

The first two phrases that I was taught were "Mutti bleibt zu hause" and "Vater geht zu arbeit". For the uninitiated, that means "mother stays at home" and "father goes to work". 

Apart from giving a rather forlorn view of the state of society in the early 1960's, it also shows how mind-bogglingly dreary were the German textbooks of the day.

Hats off to the exam boards of exams regulator Ofqual for taking steps to make sure the syllabus these days is more stimulating and relevant - and, taking on board students' comments that one of the reasons that is putting them off studying languages is the boring content of the curriculum. 

So much so that of the students who only gain top grade passes in four of the English Baccalaureate, five subjects demanded at GCSE level for 78 per cent, the missing subject is languages.

Unfortunately, though, rescuing and reviving the curriculum is not enough on its own to restore modern foreign languages to their rightful position.

Anecdotal evidence shows that the foreign exchange trip is fast becoming extinct in many of our schools.

There are many reasons for this, a conference on the future of language teaching organised by the Westminster Education forum was told. These include: the burdensome paperwork demanded by safeguarding, a perhaps understandable reluctance on the part of some school to undertake trips to, say, Paris, because of recent terrorist attacks and the overall cost of organising such trips at a time of budget cuts.

In fact, the situation is so serious, one speaker, David Shanks, a consultant on modern foreign languages who works with the Harris Federation, told the conference schools were now organising trips which don't actually entail going to visit the country whose language the pupils are learning i.e visiting embassies in the UK or maybe an exchange visit with, say, a French school in this country.

All of which is a pity because the chances of being inspired to study a language are much greater if you visit and take in some of the culture of that country.

According to Ian Bauckham, the former president of the Association for School and College Leaders who is chairing a review of moderrn foreign language teaching in secondary schools, says we have now reached a situation where German "is on the road to extinction in our schools".

"Languages are in a highly precarious state," he said.  Restoring them to their prior position needed to be a "national priority" - especially at a time of Brexit negotiations where the UK's ability to obtain trade deals will be dependent on our ability to communicate with countries who speak a range of different languages. 

That is, if we don't just breathe a sigh of relief at Donald Trump's claim that Britain will be "first in the queue" when it comes to signing trade deals with the USA.

Another problem that needs to be addressed is in the transition of pupils from primary to secondary schools. 

It is all well and good that languages have been made compulsory in the primary sector but that means pupils are arriving at secondary school with a vastly different range of abilities in their understanding of the languages they have studied. 

As a result, many are covering old ground at secondary school while they wait for their less advanced fellow pupils to catch up. Ironically, it means that those who are brightest at languages are the most likely to become bored and want to give the subject up.

There are many challenges ahead that must be faced up to. It is not enough to grandstand the fact that languages have been introduced at primary school and leave it at that.

Richard Garner was education editor of The Independent for 12 years, and before that news editor of the TES. He has been writing about education for more than three decades. 

To read more columns by Richard, view his back-catalogue

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